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.
Drab prim and more than a little prudish Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) isn't a very good governess--her rigid personal beliefs keep getting in the way of her ability to hold a job. Homeless and hungry on the streets of 1939 London she's on the verge of despair when fate sends her to Delysia Lafosse's door. Flighty enthusiastic and impulsive Delysia (Amy Adams) is a club singer with aspirations of becoming a serious actress; to achieve her goals she'll literally charm the pants off of any man who can help her--even at the risk of losing her one true love forever. Equally shocked and fascinated by Delysia's sophisticated fast-paced colorful lifestyle Miss Pettigrew uses her brief time as the young woman's faux social secretary to try to save her from herself. At the same time she begins to let go of old fears and finds the way to her own happiness. Miss Pettigrew benefits immensely from the strengths of its two stars. McDormand is both funny and affecting as the title character; she plays a recurring gag in which Miss Pettigrew almost gets to eat with just the right notes of humor and pathos. The twinkle in her eye as she takes the measure of Delysia's world is convincingly conspiratorial and her scenes with co-star Ciaran Hinds who plays courtly lingerie mogul Joe are both sweet and realistic. Adams meanwhile is just as captivating as she was in Enchanted. Delysia's perky effervescence hides both determination and vulnerability and Adams mixes all three elements expertly. The ladies get strong support from their fellas particularly Hinds and Pushing Daisies' Lee Pace who plays Delysia's poor-but-ardent suitor Michael. And Shirley Henderson is perfectly poisonous as socialite/salon owner Edythe. Parts of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day have a distinctly screwball feel -- particularly the early scenes in which Miss P. arrives at Delysia's and must immediately juggle four or five different crises for her new client. The brink-of-World War II setting with its cocktail parties jazz clubs and dames in bright red lipstick encourages that association. But director Bharat Nalluri's movie is also a touching romance with scenes of true poignancy that centers on a complex mature heroine who knows life isn't all roses. His ability to balance the two yields a genuinely funny accessible comedy that has some real depth to back up its lighthearted romping. Even if like Delysia Miss Pettigrew is only a passing presence in your life you'll likely remember her quite fondly.