Few countries have a greater tradition of ghostly legends than England, even if you discount the works of Shakespeare and Dickens. The Woman in Black, James Watkins' film based on the novel by Susan Hill, scarcely reaches Shakespearian or Dickensian heights, but it succeeds skillfully in giving its audience a copious series of shocks.
Reviews of The Woman in Black have tended to concentrate on its giving Daniel Radcliffe his first post-Harry Potter movie role. I come to The Woman in Black as much a Harry Potter neophyte as it is possible to be: I have only read one Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and seen only the movie of that book, in which Radcliffe starred when he was 12. At 22, Radcliffe is a few years too young to play Arthur Kipps—grieving widower, struggling Edwardian-era lawyer, father of a four-year-old son. But he is a solid, persuasive actor, more than up to the emotional demands of this part.
The plot of The Woman in Black is set in motion by Kipps' London law firm sending him to the country to sort out the estate of Alice Drablow, the late owner of creepy Eel Marsh House. This is Kipps' last chance to salvage his career at the firm, his boss warns him. Meanwhile, the isolated village near Eel Marsh House is beset by a series of horrifying tragedies, all involving the apparent suicides of children. To reveal much more about the plot would be to spoil it. It is enough to say that the villagers—beginning with wealthy Samuel Daily (Ciaran Hinds) and his neurotic wife (Janet McTeer)—seem to know more than they're saying about the titular character, who appears at unexpected times in the cemetery next to the house.
The Woman in Black is the first film in years to be released under the old Hammer Films logo, and it is an honorable addition to the Hammer horror filmography. The thrills are properly gasp-inducing, and the technical side is admirably polished, particularly the photography of Tim Maurice-Jones and the production design of Kaye Quinn.
Yet despite the virtues of the new film, I can't help preferring the old TV-movie version of The Woman in Black, first broadcast the year Radcliffe was born. (Adrian Rawlins, who plays Arthur in the earlier version, played James Potter in all seven Harry Potter movies.) Directed by Herbert Wise (I, Claudius), the TV movie is similar in its basic story to the new movie, but differs notably in certain details—for example, Arthur Kidd (not Kipps) is not a widower, but a happily married man with a small son. Wise's version is bleaker, more hypnotic, and ultimately more tragic than Watkins'. It is slower-paced and contains fewer overt shocks, which some horror fans would automatically dislike. But Wise gives the story time for its full horror to seep into viewers' bones, so that when the thrills come, they are the most powerful and terrifying of any cinematic ghost story in my experience.
Unfortunately, the earlier Woman in Black has been withdrawn from distribution, so that it cannot be exhibited, broadcast or sold anywhere. A deleted 1993 DVD of the earlier version fetches $100 or more a copy, when you can find it. However, fans are still willing to pay that amount, and Amazon has 150 reviews—most of them laudatory—of this relatively obscure TV movie. It may be that, seeing both versions, many viewers would still prefer the newer. I only hope that soon the older version will be re-released, so that they may decide for themselves.
Phyllida Lloyd's The Iron Lady concerns another English ghost—or, more properly, two. One haunts a row house in Belgravia, fading in body and mind after being the longest-serving, and one of the most controversial, Prime Ministers in British history. The other resides only in her fast-dissipating memory.
Under Lloyd's direction and Abi Morgan's screenplay, The Iron Lady begins, ends, and largely progresses with the Margaret Thatcher of today, living in luxurious dotage. The film portrays Thatcher holding court at dinner, muttering political truisms to her guests. Yet the most real presence in her life is the image of her long-dead husband Denis, a teasing, admonishing, loving specter.
Because it is Meryl Streep and Jim Broadbent playing Margaret and Denis, these sequences contain considerable power. We've seen elderly women in plays and movies converse with their dead husbands before. But never have I seen it portrayed with such poignancy as Streep plays it here. The look in her eyes as she simultaneously welcomes Denis' presence and fights it as a manifestation of her dementia is unforgettable—all the more so for her giving, at the same time, a letter-perfect portrayal of one of the most famous women of the past century. Broadbent for his part is playful and charmingly dotty; together, he and Streep make the most enjoyable English Odd Couple since Horace and Hilda Rumpole.
Unfortunately, a portrayal of lonely old age is not primarily what we want when we go to see a film biography of Margaret Thatcher. In its depiction of Thatcher's political life, which is what we came to see, The Iron Lady is a total botch. Lloyd's direction outside of the old age scenes is lackadaisical; Morgan's screenplay is misshapen, wrongheaded, and vague. The rise of the young Thatcher in an overwhelmingly sexist Conservative Party could have come from any of a thousand screenplays, though Alexandra Roach and Harry Lloyd do nicely as the young Margaret and Denis. Similarly, the portrayal of Thatcher's political triumph and leadership is perfunctory in the extreme. Thatcher, for better or worse and largely as an act of will, turned British economic and foreign policy around completely—much in the same fashion as her great friend and role model, Ronald Reagan. Some bless her name, many others glower at the mention of it, but the significance of her tenure as Prime Minister is unquestionable. The film's portrayal of her parliamentary career, however, is shallow almost to the point of unintelligibility. The entire Falklands War is covered in a couple of minutes with all the depth of an Army recruiting commercial, only less interesting. The members of her Cabinet are interchangeable ciphers. Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell) stands out only because he is blown up in his car; the others, played by such prominent actors as Anthony Head and Richard E. Grant, are there only to receive the poisonous looks and tart rebukes of Streep's Thatcher, who comes across as the world's starchiest, highest-ranking schoolmarm.
This is a shame, because Streep's performance is impeccable. For long stretches of the movie, you forget you aren't watching the real Thatcher. But the script is unworthy of her. Critics other than I have remarked on the cheap irony of having the young Thatcher declare she would never spend her life washing teacups, then showing her at the end of her life doing just that. I'm not even certain what Lloyd and Morgan intend us to feel at that final scene. Pity? Schadenfreude? Pensiveness at the thought that all glory is fleeting? Lloyd and Morgan lose the thread of their story in a welter of trivialities, and that is the cheapest, saddest irony of all.