The Woman in Black: Angel of Death – Review by David Turpin
Directed by Matthew Taylor
Starring: Phoebe Fox, Helen McCrory, Jeremy Irvine, Oaklee Prendergast
The recently resurrected Hammer Films enjoyed its biggest hit to date with The Woman in Black (2012), a merely adequate adaptation of Susan Hill’s classic 1983 novella of the same name. The success of that film may have been down to the presence of Daniel Radcliffe in the lead role, but his characteristically floundering turn isn’t missed in this generally more effective sequel.
Based, rather nebulously, on a “story” by Susan Hill that has been retooled by writer John Croker and director Matthew Taylor, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death moves events on 40 years from the original, as two teachers and their young charges flee Blitz-era London to take refuge in the eerie Eel Marsh House. Clearly, this is a decision they will live to regret.
As sensitive teacher Eve, Phoebe Fox makes an appealing heroine, and feels authentically of the period. As does Helen McCrory (soon to be seen exercising his affinity for Gothic camp in the second series of Penny Dreadful), who is a hoot as disciplinarian headmistress Jean Hogg. As the valiant RAF pilot who comes to the women’s aid, Jeremy Irvine is less effective. The most resonant performance, however, comes from the fantastically named Oaklee Prendergast, as a small boy who becomes the locus for the Woman in Black’s supernatural interventions. Taylor proved his facility with child actors in his 2009 film The Scouting Book for Boys, and here Prendergast is genuinely appealing without a hunt of precociousness (a rare feat for a child actor). His sympathetic presence goes some way to putting over this far-fetched yarn, as well as underscoring the most unique property of the film – a willingness to imperil and even bump off children that will strike viewers as either tasteless or daring, according to their sensitivities. A brief glimpse of a child’s corpse ensnared in barbed wire carries a genuine shock one doesn’t expect from a genre opus like this, although it’s difficult to determine what the film is trying to say by symbolically linking its haunted house tropes with the horrors of the World Wars.
Elsewhere, the film is business as usual, serving up the customary false scares and ghastly apparitions. While it gestures to The Innocents (1961), The Others (2001) and even Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), The Woman in Black: Angel of Death is a much simpler film than any of these precursors, its occasionally garbled plot is mainly a pretext for literal-minded bumps in the night. As a sequel with an entirely new set of characters, it is also saddled with the unlovely task of unspooling out back story in order to catch its protagonists up with the audience. For all this, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death is an improvement where it really matters – in its presentation of its central figure. While its predecessor was hamstrung by a hokey spectre and merely adequate cinematography, the sequel manages to generate a couple of real frissons, bolstered by George Steel’s atmospheric camerawork and a cannier (or perhaps uncannier) presentation of the woman herself.
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