There isn't much of a twist to The Woman in Black's haunted house tale: man goes to a creepy old house runs into an angry ghost and mayhem ensues. That standard horror plot would be fine if the execution were thrilling every scare sending a chill down the spine. But star Daniel Radcliffe's first post-Potter outing has less life than its spectral inhabitants with impressive early 20th century production design sharp cinematography and solid performances barely keeping it breathing. Much like the film's titular spirit The Woman in Black hangs in limbo haunting the quality divide.
Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) is barely holding on in life having lost his wife during the birth of their child and struggling to stay employed as a lawyer. To stay afloat Kipps reluctantly takes on the job of settling the legal affairs of a recently deceased widow. Living in her home the you-should-have-known-this-house-was-haunted-by-the-name Eel Marsh House Kipps quickly realizes there's more to the woman's life than he realized unraveling her mysterious connections to a string of child deaths and a ghostly presence in the home. Even with pressure from the townspeople Kipps continues his investigation hoping to right any wrongs he's accidentally caused by putting the violent Woman in Black to rest.
Radcliffe bounces back and forth between the dusty mansion made even more forbidding by the high tides that routinely cut it off from civilization and a town full of wide-eyed psychos who live in fear of the kid-killing Woman in Black. Even after losing his own son Kipps' neighbor Daily (Ciarán Hinds) is convinced the "ghost" is a fairy tales while Daily's wife (Oscar nominee Janet McTeer) finds herself occasionally possessed by her dead son scribbling forbidding message to Arthur about future murders. Arthur wrestles with the two extreme points of view but Woman in Black doesn't spend much time exploring the hardships of a skeptic quickly slipping back into standard horror mode at every opportunity. When they have time to play around with the twisted scenario all three actors are top-notch but rarely are they asked to do anything but gasp and react in a terrified manner.
Director James Watkins (Eden Lake) conjures up some legitimately spooky imagery leaving the space behind Arthur empty or cutting to an object in the room that could potentially come back to haunt our befuddled hero all in an effort to tickle our imaginations. But like so many "jump scare" horror flicks Woman in Black relies heavily on the "Bah-BAAAAAAH" music cues obtrusively orchestrated by composer Marco Beltrami. A rocking chair a swinging door and the reveal of a decomposing zombie ghost lady could work on their own especially in such a well-designed environment as Eel Marsh House but Woman in Black insists on zapping a charge of musical electricity straight into our brain forcing us to shiver in the least graceful way possible.
The script by Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass X-Men: First Class) tries to throw back to the slow burn character-first horror films of classic cinema while injecting the sensibilities modern filmmaking. The combination turns Woman in Black into visually appealing dramatically bland ghost story. Radcliffe still has a long career ahead of him as Woman in Black does suggest but this isn't the movie that get people thinking there's life after Potter.
Told from the perspective of one innocent maid Mary Macearchran (Kelly MacDonald) the story starts as she arrives at the magnificent country estate of Gosford Park. On this particular weekend host Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) have invited an eclectic group to the house for a shooting party. The guests include Sylvia's two sisters (Geraldine Somerville Natasha Wightman) their respective loser husbands (Charles Dance Tom Hollander) her cantankerous aunt Constance (Maggie Smith) for whom Mary works British matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and his American friend Morris Weisman (Bob Balaban) a film producer who makes Charlie Chan movies. As the upper-crust guests bicker about money and power the ranks of house servants personal maids and valets below make sure their charges are well taken care of under the guidance of the head butler Jennings (Alan Bates) head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) and head cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins). Through Mary's eyes we see that the glamour of the upstairs patrons and the seeming precision downstairs are not all they seem. The two worlds are destined to collide and when they do it leads to only one thing--murder.
One of the joys of an Altman movie is his uncanny ability to take a huge ensemble cast of really good actors and carve out a film from their personal stories. This style can also work to the film's detriment however and in Gosford Park the mostly British cast melds together almost too well. Often you can't even tell who's who. Still with all the talent involved there are at least a few bright moments: Smith as the wisecracking Constance an old lady who's very used to being waited on hand and foot gets all the best lines and delivers them flawlessly and veteran actress Mirren is also brilliant as the staunch Mrs. Wilson. She turns in one of the film's only heartbreaking scenes as her character grieves for the son she gave away long ago in the name of servitude. Also good are MacDonald as the young Mary Clive Owen as the valet Robert Parks who carries more than just a chip on his shoulder and Emily Watson as the headstrong chief housemaid Elsie. Northam too shows off his musical abilities as the suave piano-playing singing Novello. The rest all blend together except unfortunately the two American actors--Balaban comes off as annoying and Ryan Phillippe playing an actor pretending to be Morris' valet is in way over his head.
Interestingly the film is taken from a story idea dreamt up by Altman and Balaban. One wonders if perhaps the two were inspired to create Park after watching an episode of the classic '70s British television drama Upstairs Downstairs which was about a wealthy British household whose servant class had just as many dramas as the people they served (hmm sounds familiar). Sure it's conceivable that two Americans sitting around talking about making a distinctly British movie (and a period piece to boot) could pull it off and with a tremendous talent like Altman attached you'd think it would work. But Park misses the mark. The Altman-esque qualities are all there--the way he interweaves his characters' stories and shows real people with real emotions--but maybe just maybe Altman is simply out of his element. You enjoy the ride but it's not a ride through appealing territory and you're definitely watching from the window as the characters live a life you never really become a part of.