The British television tradition of screening a ghost story at Christmas was filled in 1989 with Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel The Woman in Black. This isn’t one of the best contributions to the annual ghost drama but at 100 minutes it’s one of the longest, and it has its supporters, some of whom value it above the recent Hammer film production. Seeing as I’d re-watched Nigel Kneale’s major film and TV works earlier this year I thought I’d give The Woman in Black another look. It was better than I remembered although it still left me feeling unsatisfied.
I’ve not read Susan Hill’s book so can’t say how it compares to the television version in any detail. (Wikipedia has a spoiler-heavy list of the differences.) I did see Stephen Mallatratt’s play in 1988, however, the first adaptation of the book which has since become one of London’s most popular theatre productions. The play conjures an effective sense of dread but relies a little too much on loud noises to shock the audience at crucial moments. This is a cheap trick in bad horror films (Wes Craven does it a lot), and it’s just as cheap a trick on a stage. Nigel Kneale may have altered Hill’s story to a degree which apparently displeased her but he didn’t resort to any Craven tricks.
The BBC’s Christmas ghost stories have tended to be MR James stories, and The Woman in Black is very much a James pastiche which no doubt helped make it attractive to ITV. All the James hallmarks are there: a man of letters (solicitor rather than a scholar) visiting an isolated part of the English countryside; a lonely house; fearful locals; mysterious deaths; documentary evidence that requires examination; a haunting.
Adrian Rawlins is the young solicitor, Arthur Kidd, given the task of putting the estate of a dead woman in order. Rawlins would have been fine in a smaller role but he wasn’t a good choice for a central character, not when Kidd is on screen every minute of the running time. Far better is the always excellent Bernard Hepton as a genial landowner, a very different role to his sinister Fisher in Robin Redbreast. There’s a lot of solid period detail—Kneale’s dialogue fixes the date at around 1925—and the writing and direction manages to avoid insulting the intelligence. In place of the usual voiceover reading of letters we have Kidd listening to a succession of recording cylinders, an unlikely thing for an elderly woman to be using but it does give the film a connection back to Van Helsing’s device in Dracula. There’s even a surreptitious reference to Kneale’s “stone tape” theory when Kidd says that the ghostly sounds he keeps hearing are like a recording of a terrible event. Director Herbert Wise does some clever hide-and-seek business with the spectral woman, only fumbling things near the end when he makes the mistake of trying to imitate Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. So why does this version still remain unsatisfying?