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Who is the woman in black?

It seems I can’t go more than a few days without posting on this film – but I am very fond of the story. Unfortunately the shot above is the clearest picture I can find of Jennet amongst the promo materials but I think it gives a good impression of the brooding malevolence this character exudes. It’s also a nice shot of Daniel Radcliffe looking grown-up and sexy as dear old Arthur Kipps so I can’t complain.

But back to the opening question – who is the woman in black? The woman we meet in both films is rather different from the character in the book. Even her appearance has changed. This is how Susan HIll describes her eponymous heroine when Arthur first sees her at Alice Drablow’s funeral:

“A bonnet-type hat covered her head and shaded her face, but, although I did not stare, even the swift glance I took showed me enough to recognise that she was suffering from some terrible wasting disease, for not only was she extremely pale, even more than a contrast with the blackness of her garments could account for, but the skin and, it seemed, only the thinnest layer of flesh was stretched and strained against her bones, so that it gleamed with a curious, blue-white sheen, and her eyes seemed sunken back into her head.”

Kipps goes on to recount that even though the woman looks close to death from this wasting disease, he would estimate that she is only around thirty.

It seems a little surprising to me that for once a film should shy-away from presenting it’s ghost in the most macabre way possible. In both celluloid incarnations Jennet Humfrye has looked far from the walking skeleton Hill describes. Indeed, Liz White’s Jennet is very beautiful, though some long shots cast her face in shadow to the extent that she looks incorporeal. Pauline Moran is also an attractive woman, and though her Jennet doesn’t have the same pretty innocence of the latest version, she is alternatively an austere, robust woman, if pale and menacing.

So why the change? In my opinion the 1989 film does not wish for us to sympathising with Jennet. It even casts her as responsible for Nathaniel’s death – he died on the causeway as she tried to take him from Alice. It seems clear that when he screams for mummy in this film – it is Alice that he wants. Here the spectre is purely malevolent. Perhaps tormented by her own misfortune – she is vitriolic, aggressive and unrelenting as she hunts out her victims. Our sympathy is firmly with Alice Drablow, the poor old woman who died, unloved and un-mourned – haunted for years by her sister’s malevolent spirit.

In the latest film, Alice is squarely painted as the villain. She stole Jennet’s child, threatening her with the asylum if she didn’t hand over the boy – and then, callously allowed him to die on the causeway. Leaving his body to rot in the marsh. “You could have saved him,” Jennet scrawls on the wall of the nursery in blood. Presumably shortly before hanging herself.

This doesn’t quite fit, however. I find it very difficult to sympathise with the woman in black, she is after all a child killer – however badly her sister may have treated her in life. The film also seems to contradict itself here, let’s not put to on side Arthur’s attempt to appease her – and her rejection of this. Why then are such measures taken to encourage us to sympathise with the woman in black?

In the book, as I have lamented before, Hill is frustratingly reticent to elaborate on the character of Alice Drablow – but she is a remote character. Dead at the outset of the book, a virtual recluse, we get only fleeting glances of her thoughts and feelings through the papers Arthur sorts. She is certainly not the unfeeling villain of the 2012 film – she takes Jennet’s child because he was born out of wedlock. She later relents on her initial stipulation and allows Jennet to spend time with the child. She is not present at his death – the boy and his nanny are both killed in the pony and trap.

In the book we know only that Jennet’s ghost is a harbinger of infant death, she seems to be the cause, yet we never have any deeper insight into her motivation. And why should we? The woman in black is not Jennet; she is the shade of Jennet – her anger and pain stalking the desolate landscape without thought or reason. What Arthur senses in the Woman in Black is pure malevolence. A woman who has twice lost her child and who wastes away to nothing – but her anger and pain. This is where the first film triumphs – and the newer film falls down. The Woman in Black has a story – it is Jennet’s story but we cannot sympathise with the ghost in the way that we may sympathise with the woman.

The Woman in Black is malevolence and grief and pain personified. She is a force of nature. She is our nightmare – unfeeling, immovable, relentless. To humanise her is to rob her of her power – and sadly, that is exactly what the latest incarnation has done.

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