From Gryffindor to Eelmarsh House with Dan Radcliffe

Dan Radcliffe in The Woman in Black

Poor Dan Radcliffe. Though it’s difficult to muster up much pity for a kid who had made enough money by the time he reached puberty that he would never have to work again if he didn’t want to, I do feel a little sorry that he has to go through this bumpy transition toward being taken seriously as an actor. He comes off as such a nice, earnest young man, who seems very aware that his success so far has been at least as much a matter of dumb luck – of being in the right place at the right time – as of having any native acting talent.

If his interviews can be believed, Radcliffe understood what a gift it was to be surrounded by the cream of contemporary British thespians for ten years during the filming of the Harry Potter saga, and dedicated himself to soaking up whatever he could learn from the likes of Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Imelda Staunton, Ralph Fiennes, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. And he demonstrated his willingness to work very hard to transcend his shortcomings when he took on the lead role in How to Succeed in Business… on Broadway, learning to dance tolerably well in spite of the fact that he has a spatial perception and movement disorder called dyspraxia.

By age 22 Radcliffe had already wrestled with his own potential for alcoholism and made a conscious decision to become a teetotaler. He has even reportedly made sincere efforts to become a real New Yorker. Young Dan could easily rest on his laurels now; but instead he has apparently decided that he wants to get good at his craft, whatever level of commitment that takes. How can one not wish him well in his efforts?


So, like many of those who turned out to catch The Woman in Black on its opening weekend, a large part of my motivation was to find out if Radcliffe could cut it in a “grownup” movie, or be convincing in a part that he hadn’t been internalizing since he was 11 years old. The other motivating factor was a yearning for a return to the spooky haunted-house movies of yesteryear, where the horror factor was measured in episodes of gooseflesh rather than in buckets of blood spewed by the victims of serial killers armed with power tools. I was looking for Gothic atmospherics à la The Turn of the Screw, and I’m pleased to report that The Woman in Black delivers them in spades.

This movie, directed by James Watkins and heralding the revival of England’s revered spook-show factory Hammer Films, is a classic “Don’t-stay-in-that-decrepit-mansion-overnight” ghost story, based on a popular 1983 novel by Susan Hill. Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young widower whose hallucinations of his late wife are hurting his ability to deliver the goods as an attorney. His boss gives him one last chance to redeem his career: Go through all the papers of a recently deceased elderly woman (who owned the requisite decrepit mansion, natch) and find the final version of her will. But when Kipps arrives in the gloomy seaside village somewhere in Essex, the townsfolk immediately try to give him the bum’s rush back to London but won’t explain why.

The sole exceptions are Mr. and Mrs. Daily, a couple of landed gentry played with great gusto by Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer. Hinds, who did some scenes with Radcliffe in Deathly Hallows Part 2 as the late Hogwarts headmaster’s underachiever brother Aberforth Dumbledore, serves as the voice of rationality amidst the superstitious townsfolk. Meanwhile, McTeer as his wife strains his civilized veneer at frequent intervals by having fits that might be psychosis – or might be possession by the ghost known as the Woman in Black who haunts the vicinity, driving young children to suicide. Of the whole cast, these two definitely get to have the most fun onscreen.

The other major character, of course, is the creepy manse itself. It’s a crumbling Gothic pile set on a rocky outcrop above marshes that are impassable by automobile at high tide, presumably meant to evoke Mont St. Michel on the coast of Normandy (although Sawyers might be reminded more of the Saugerties Lighthouse, and Paltzonians of the old Mohonk Gatehouse rendered inaccessible across the flooded Wallkill Flats after Hurricane Irene). An intertidal zone like this would normally be a rich ecosystem replete with marsh plants and seabirds, but the whole area seems completely dead and barren, except for the vines that are threatening to bring down what remains of Eelmarsh House. A crude wooden cross is stuck in the mud flats at the point where a carriage was once sucked under the muck, drowning the seven-year-old child of the old lady who owned the house. You can bet that the fact that young Nathaniel’s corpse was never retrieved is significant to the mystery, and will give Radcliffe a chance to go diving into the goo in the third act.

But most of the narrative transpires in the interior of Eelmarsh House, superbly populated by a plethora of creepy Victorian toys. Indeed, the pitted, stained porcelain dolls and mangy-furred wind-up monkeys are the scariest things in the whole movie, their dead eyes seeming to follow the light of Kipps’s candle as he prowls the house seeking the source of some ectoplasmic creaking or thumping sound. If you thought that the malevolent clown doll was the scariest bit in Poltergeist, then The Woman in Black should be right up your alley. The least successful element in the movie by far is the score, which relies way too much on loud percussive noises to telegraph when to be scared. The moments when all you can hear are the tinkling of a music box or wind-up toy are much more unnerving.

This role was a wise choice for Radcliffe to make his cinematic maiden voyage out of the Potterverse, in that he has very little dialogue for long stretches of the story. It’s not his fault, but for those who have seen all the Potter films multiple times, the familiarity of his voice may evoke scenes that we’re supposed to be putting out of our heads for now. (When Kipps had to say, “I don’t understand,” my pre-programmed brain wanted to fill in “…Professor” at the end.)

That being said, the young actor acquits himself well in The Woman in Black. He looks older in Edwardian garb, with five o’clock shadow and dark rings of mourning and sleep deprivation under his eyes, and seems to have extended the emotional range of his face-acting and posture well beyond what we have come to expect from him. Though Radcliffe appears in nearly every scene of the movie, he definitely holds his own, managing to convey enough nuance to engage the viewer’s sympathies – and to justify offers of future career opportunities onscreen. Maybe next time around, neither I nor any other reviewer will feel it necessary to mention the name Harry Potter again. So mote it be.