I’m a fan of the original book by Susan Hill and the successful West End play based on the book, so was a tad reluctant to go along and watch this film. Our experience wasn’t helped by the ‘Potter’ element in the packed cinema, who screeched at every set-piece scary moment. So… the main questions regarding this film have to be – did Daniel Radcliffe pull off his first major adult role since Harry Potter and did Jane Goldsmith’s screenplay measure up to the very high standards set by both the book and play?
Radcliffe plays young lawyer, Arthur Kipps, still reeling after the death of his wife in childbirth some three years earlier. He is sent off to the depths of Norfolk to Eel House by his grumpy senior partner, with the injunction to sort through the mass of paperwork left by deceased reclusive widow Alice Drablow – with the instruction that if he doesn’t do a thorough job, he needn’t bother returning. Radcliffe’s pale-faced expressions of suffering and terror certainly ticked the box. It wasn’t a part that demanded much else – and his particular skill-set absolutely delivered what was required. Could he have done more? Not as far as I’m concerned. The major sin in this part would have been to overact – and Radcliffe’s pared, mature performance meant that at no time did the mass of over-excited teenage girls burst into laughter.
This version is set in Edwardian times and Radcliffe is well supported by Ciarán Hinds, who plays the local landowner – the only person in this inbred, grimy part of Norfolk prepared to be friendly to the London lawyer. Director James Watkins has fully exploited the gothic creepiness pervading the play, right up to the limit. There are tension-filled shots of macabre-looking toys, smeared windows and dusty corners of this neglected house – interspersed with genuinely frightening glimpses of an emaciated female. The effect is heightened by the fact that we never get more than a fleeting glance. Amid the gloom and cobwebs, the story steadily unfolds until we arrive at the sudden twist ending.
Goldsmith chose to completely depart from the play’s grimly effective climax, and while I was up to that point, quite happy to go along with the genuinely menacing atmosphere that Watkins had crafted, as the end credits rolled, I felt that the last few minutes were a real letdown. A shame – especially for those of us who have seen the play. I’m still trying to work out why a writer of Goldsmith’s calibre chose such a lame option for the finale, but it certainly knocked a couple of points off my final score as it spoilt what was mostly, an enjoyably creepy film.