Widow’s Weeds… THE WOMAN IN BLACK Reviewed

The Woman in Black (Network)

BD. Region B. Network. 15 (available exclusively from Network’s website).

It’s misleadingly easy to think of Network as a label that just collects old ITC / Gerry Anderson / whatever TV series into (rather nifty) box sets but there’s more to it than that. Elsewhere on this blog I’ve raved about the restoration job these guys did on Sidney Hayers’ British giallo Assault (1971) and now they’ve worked similar wonders on the 1989 TV movie rendering of Susan Hill’s retrogothic novel The Woman In Black. Adapted to the small screen by the legendary Nigel Kneale and directed by Herbert (I Claudius) Wise, it’s long been overdue a decent disc release (let alone as beautiful looking an HD debut as this).

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TWIB comes as a bittersweet reminder of what regional ITV companies were capable of before they got rolled up into a nationwide monolith and submerged under a sea of Reality TV / talent show / soap operatic horse shit. Yes, as late as Christmas Eve, 1989, Central were aspiring to (and attaining) the same high standards as the BBC’s ongoing seasonal presentations of M R James, Sheridan Le Fanu, et al. How heartbreaking it is to see the Beeb now priding itself on delivering platform loads of Millennial-focused drivel that matches any LCD inanity that ITV can come up with…

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Up-and-coming London solicitor / loving family man Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins) is dispatched by his employers to the coastal backwater of Crythin Gifford so he can sort out the estate of the recently deceased Alice Drablow… at least he didn’t have to go to Transylvania (though, as it happens, he might as well have). He’s welcomed by the agricultural estate agent Sam Toovey (Bernard Hepton) but the other locals can’t conceal their Michael Ripper-grade uneasiness at any mention of the late Mrs Drablow. Unsettling details accumulate and congeal into a mounting sense of dread… why are so many of the tombstones in the local cemetery those of infants? And just who is the grey-skinned, black garbed woman (Pauline Moran) who Kidd keeps catching glimpses of at Mrs D’s funeral and thereafter? He comes closer to the truth than is comfortable after a night spent at the old woman’s house, on an island only reachable from the mainland when tides allow. But even when he flees back to London, Arthur has not seen the last of The Woman In Black…

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Throughout, TWIB is ravishingly shot (Michael Davis’s cinematography done full justice in this restoration), brilliantly cast, beautifuly played, cannily paced and insistently atmospheric. Period recreation is immaculate and the film’s sound design nothing short of heroic, setting up and underscoring (in concert with Rachel Portman’s marvellous score) a series of increasingly effective jump scares.

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Disregard the (what currently passes for) Hammer remake and unwanted sequel, pull on your brownest pair of trousers and make yourself uncomfortable. Grab yourself an egg nog and settle down to “enjoy” a festive ending so downbeat, you’ll be checking the contents of your stocking with extreme trepidation, come this Christmas.

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This beautifully packaged set (which comes with a collectors’ booklet put together by Andrew Pixley) offers you the options of widescreen or original broadcast dimensions and an audio track by Kim Newman, Mark Gatiss and Andy Nyman, who has a small role in the film (below, left). Each doughty commentators in their own right, their group session does rather verge, it has to be said, on the self-indulgent. And while we’re indulging ourselves…

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If you blinked, you might well have missed Alison King as “Gypsy Woman” so here’s an opportunity to take a more leisurely look at the future Coronation Street temptress. It’s possibly the distortions occasioned by that conspicuous rip in the space / time continuum here in the bowels of Oak Mansion that license us to devote a significant portion of this posting to somebody who only appears subliminally in the film under review. Or maybe ol’ Bob’s just an incorrigible letch. You must be the judge…

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