The Woman In Black (2012) *

A film that has done the seemingly impossible: justified the use of the revived name of Hammer Film Productions, honoured the traditions of the studio’s past, evoked much of its style, and at the same time managed to appeal to a broad, modern audience that have no interest in, or perhaps even awareness of, the original films. As a film it’s good, as a juggling act it’s amazing.

There are the expected anachronisms of course, of the sort which no modern film set in the past could now be expected to avoid, annoying though they are all the same: designer stubble, men walking about in the rain without hats, characters suggesting they “get the hell out” of places, and ugly modern metaphor-speak (Daniel Radcliffe’s boss urges greater commitment from his employee on the grounds that they “don’t carry passengers”).
And Radcliffe is too young; there’s no point pretending he isn’t. But neither would it be right not to add that, given that initial handicap, he delivers an excellent performance that does everything possible to make you forget, or at least excuse, his fundamental unsuitability for the role. His commitment and intensity cannot be faulted – his facial acting alone has to carry a good fifty percent of the film – and if he never quite convinces us he’s a widowed lawyer with a four year old son, well… Julie Ege wasn’t my mind’s idea of an Edwardian feminist adventuress in Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, and I can’t say that worried me unduly either. These are precisely the kind of eccentricities that Hammer must be allowed.
 The rest of the film? Well, it’s not especially original and it’s not especially ambitious, so hyperbole would sit ill on its frail shoulders. But in terms of the limits it sets for itself, there's not much wrong with it at all. Even rendered in tacky digital format, the art direction is astounding, the photography is rich, the locations are beautifully atmospheric. (Did you not dream of seeing a Hammer character making his way up and down a baroque staircase left of frame again? Dream no more!) At least two of the big scare moments work better than anything comparable in any of the similar films to which this has been compared, and the lingering sense of dread that strings them together is better yet. There’s even a slightly sappy ending that, a meaningless close on the Woman in Black’s face notwithstanding, honours the original Hammer’s commitment to ultimately restored order, even to restored order within a framework of Christian dogmatics.
 I liked the casting, too, which seemed to me chosen by the classic Hammer method: an attention-catcher in front, sturdy support from traditional talent (Ciaran Hinds is rock solid) and a fine third-row of well-chosen rhubarbers (David Burke, probably tv’s best ever Dr Watson, gets a line or two as the village bobby; Victor McGuire gets one as an anguished father). It’s good to see them, and they have the feel of a new Hammer repertory. If any of them showed up again in the next one it would be wonderful. It is in such matters as these that the true Hammer flavour can most usefully be recalled.
What the studio really needs is an overarching identity that links its new films to each other, rather than something that links any of them to the past.