As ghost stories go, this one isn’t bad, but the filmmakers take an awfully long time getting to the actual plot, content to spend the first half of the movie doling out “boo!” moments…more than I’ve ever experienced in one motion picture! Most of them are pretty effective, but after the third or fourth I felt I’d had my fill for a while.
Daniel Radcliffe acquits himself well as a young lawyer in early 20th century England who is still haunted by the death of his wife, in childbirth, four years ago. With a young boy to raise, he is desperate to prove himself to his employer, and takes on a thankless assignment, traveling to a small village and then to an even more remote old mansion outside of town, to go through a dead woman’s voluminous papers.
From the reception he gets upon his arrival, it’s immediately clear that he should turn around and go home. (Given the vocal nature of the audience with whom I saw this film I’m surprise no one shouted that out loud.) But he perseveres, battling hostility and a raft of local superstitions involving a ghostly woman and an alarming number of dead children.
A wealthy couple (Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer) are the only welcoming figures during his lonely vigil—and even they have a sad tale to tell.
So what’s behind all these deaths, and can Radcliffe unlock the mystery in time to avoid even more tragedy in that spooky old house? If you care enough to find out, and are exceedingly patient, you'll learn the answer. Jane Goldman’s screenplay (based on a novel by Susan Hill) does tie everything together—finally—in a bittersweet but fitting finale. Director James Watkins wrings every drop out of the endless scare set-ups and payoffs. And Radcliffe, who is called upon to stay tightly coiled for most of the duration, does a thoroughly capable job. After all, he’s not just a talented young man: he’s spent the last decade learning from some of the finest actors on the planet in those Harry Potter films.
This may not be one of the great ghost stories, but it’s pretty good. Compared to most early-2012 releases, it’s a masterpiece.