The Woman in Black: Angel of Death

Posted: January 11, 2015 in Film reviews
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Directed by Tom Harper. Starring Phoebe Fox, Jeremy Irvine and Helen McCrory.

It is forty years since Arthur Kipps encountered the Woman in Black, and Eel Marsh House has remained empty and near derelict ever since, but during the Blitz it is pressed back into service as a boarding school for children evacuated from London.

The first group of children to embark for Eel Marsh House are led by headmistress Jean Hogg (McGrory) and young teacher Eve Parkins (Fox.) They find Eel Marsh House to be a less than suitable location for a home for children, but beyond this Eve senses something else, and despite the fact that they are supposed to be alone on the island she keeps catching a glimpse of a woman in old fashioned dress.

Before long strange things start to happen, and all too soon the children are in danger as the Woman in Black’s curse rises again. With Jean dismissive of her fears, Eve’s only ally is RAF pilot Harry Burnstow (Irvine) but he has a dark secret, much as Eve does, that might impact on their ability to save the remaining children from the not so tender mercies of the vengeful spirit of Jennet Humfrye.

I really liked The Woman in Black, it was sumptuous and managed to imbue a very traditional ghost story with a modern sensibility without resorting to gore or an over reliance on jump scares. It had a great script, good direction and a very solid cast, and for all that Daniel Radcliffe was perceived as being too young to play Arthur Kipps, he gave an exceptionally good account of himself, in particular during his first night alone in Eel Marsh House in which he convincingly played being terrified without dint of dialogue.

As such I was very much looking forward to the sequel, however much of what raised the original above the average horror film bar is missing from the sequel, and whilst Angel of Death isn’t a terrible film, it rarely rises above the level of a by the numbers sequel.

Susan Hill, the author of The Woman in Black supplied the story, but she didn’t do the script, and neither did Jane Goldman who’d done such a good job on the first film. The decision to focus on a different time period is laudable but whilst initially the idea of kids being evacuated to Eel Marsh House is a nice idea, in practice it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. There might be a war on but you would still imagine there would be several more suitable places to evacuate schoolchildren too than this place, a dilapidated house that hasn’t been lived in in decades, on an island surrounded by deadly mashes, with a causeway that can only be traversed at certain times of the day?

Eel Marsh House doesn’t look much different to how it did 40 years earlier, which seems odd, but it does seem a lot mistier, which is fine but too often this felt like it was being substituted for an eerie atmosphere. The Woman in Black spent as much time away from the house as in it, and this film is lacking the wider perspective and fear that we got from the local villagers and landowners who acted as both Arthur’s allies and enemies because of their own encounters the titular character.

By contrast Angel of Death is thin on supporting characters, and it seems like a crazy old blind man is all that remains of the villagers, and even Harry’s RAF base can’t provide much in the way of additional characters. Whilst this could have given the film a claustrophobic feel, much like the enshrouding mist that seems to dominate every exterior scene it only serves to make the film seem parochial in scale.

This can work, take The Others, but that film had great direction, a superb script and Nicole Kidman on dominating form. By contrast even an actress as good as McCrory is can’t do much with insipid material. Fox and Irvine are perfectly sufficient as leads, but you can’t help feeling that Fox in particular is too subdued for the lead role. It may be that it’s just that the story can’t give anyone enough to work with. Not even the director, and I’ve seen Hardy’s work on Peaky Blinders and he’s good. Much more should have been made of the similarity between Eve and Jennet and the children should have been given more to do than simply be victims.

Too often the film relies on jump scares, and sadly whilst some of them are effective others are telegraphed too easily, and the film is at its most effective when it’s relying on subtler creepiness; the Woman in Black glimpsed in the corner of shot, and in particular an effective moment where what you think is splinters of wood turns out to be fingers. Sadly these moments are too few and far between.

The film deserves praise for its period setting and desire to not rely totally on surprise to shock, but compared to the first film this is as insubstantial as the mist surrounding Eel Marsh House.

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