Faces in windows, figures in the garden, death, loss and a vast, dark, eerie country house: The Woman in Black is an atmospheric English period chiller very much in the tradition of The Turn of the Screw, though it eschews the supple ambiguities that are part of the reason why Henry James’ novella is so enduring and so often imitated. Based on Susan Hill’s novel, scripted by Jane Goldman and directed by James Watkins—whose 2008 debut Eden Lake was an effective, well-cast little hillbilly horror—The Woman in Black concerns a very young yet very troubled London lawyer named Arthur Kipps. He travels to a village tormented by the titular phantom lady whose now-vacant mansion is surrounded by marshlands and whose estate Arthur is charged with settling.
The film’s a little too drawn out in places, a little too bogged down in its own mythology, a little too dependent on boo moments to generate tension. But it has wonderfully eerie locations, a gasp of an ending, a superbly measured supporting performance from Ciarán Hinds, and the imminently watchable wounded eyes of its protagonist—eyes you will likely recognize. “I don’t want to be in anything that people are going to go see just because Daniel Radcliffe’s in it,” Daniel Radcliffe told me when we met in Toronto to discuss The Woman in Black, his first film since the close of the Harry Potter franchise that made him extremely famous. It should perform well this weekend, better than most British genre films, but, despite his wishes, I suspect that Radcliffe’s name on the poster may have an awful lot to do with its draw.
Radcliffe’s career has indeed been dominated by no less than eight Potter films, but it’s worth remembering that in making those eight films Radcliffe got to work with four very different directors, including Mike Newell and Alfonso Cuarón. He’s also starred in Equus and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying for the stage, and has published poetry under a pseudonym. So, while only 22, the diversity of Radcliffe’s experience betrays his age and star image. He struck me as smart, conscientious and genuinely enthusiastic about the work. He’s articulate about craft and critical of his performances. He talks a lot, but he doesn’t talk shit. He said he liked my pants. I quite liked his jumper.
JB: There are sequences in Woman in Black where, if you don’t count the ghosts, you’re pretty much flying solo for quite long stretches. In such situations do you feel like you need to employ different tools as an actor, to pay a different sort of attention to facial expression or gesture or camera placement?
Daniel Radcliffe: Those are situations where you just stick by your director. Because you can slip into this trap where you feel like you’re just making the same face over and over. No matter how different the thought process is you’ve got to look continually fucking terrified, and there are only so many variations of facial expression that do that. So you have to keep checking in and trust the director to tell you if he’s not getting what he needs. I was also helped enormously by a brilliant set that really allows you to lose yourself walking around in it. You have to think of the house as being the other character you’re interacting with.
JB: You’re playing a widower, a single father, a guy who’s in danger of losing his job—and this is before we even get to your first encounter with the vengeful ghost. I don’t know how one prepares to embody a character loaded with such heavy psychic burdens.
DR: It’s tricky. You’ve got to balance his general sense of feeling completely devastated while letting him be reasonably reactive. I knew I could never fully imagine what it’s like to have lost someone as Arthur has, so I met with a bereavement councillor and I read a couple of books, C.S. Lewis’ Grief Observed and one called You’ll Get Over It, which was fantastic. Another thing that helped with Arthur was talking to friends who’ve suffered from depression. Something that struck me as especially useful was that they all said how physically tired you get. So I started from a place of exhaustion. I imagined that Arthur felt exhausted every day of the last five years, and I wondered how that would have affected his outlook, his mental state, and his relationship with his son. One of the things that drew me to this project was that it’s really about what happens to us if we fail to move on from a loss. Arthur is unable to even look at his child without remembering the death of his wife.
JB: You yourself are a writer. I wonder at this point what you’re looking for in scripts. Is it good writing, per se? Is it more about certain stories or themes? The right kind of character?
DR: Good writing is important because good talent is attracted to it. Smart people gravitate toward each other. Compelling stories are important because I don’t want to be in anything that people are going to go see just because Daniel Radcliffe’s in it. I want good movies, not vehicles. My choices are also be based a lot on directors. I want to work with people who are going to push me.
JB: To offer a variation on something you’d mentioned, one of the themes of The Woman in Black is that the past never really lets you go...
[Radcliffe laughs knowingly]
JB: Do you think The Woman in Black will help to shake off the ghost of that first, enormously popular phase of your career?
DR: I never thought there could be any one movie where people would go, “Oh, well he’s not Harry Potter anymore; he’s totally changed!” I always knew it would be a longer process of working on consistently good films, so people can say, “Okay, he’s got good taste, he’s a good actor and he’s making good movies, regardless of what he did in the past.” I don’t think it’s going to happen with this film. I think it’s a good start.