Spooky doings in The Woman in Black, head games played in A Dangerous Method

by Mark Burger

Having dealt with the supernatural in the popular Harry Potter film series, Daniel Radcliffe again finds himself enmeshed in dark doings in The Woman in Black , an adaptation of Susan Hill’s novella produced by the latest incarnation of Britain’s Hammer Films, purveyors of many a Gothic goodie in its ’50s/’60s/’70s heyday.

Appropriately drenched in Gothic atmosphere — courtesy cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones, production designer Kave Quinn and art director Paul Ghirardani — the story follows young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) as he travels to a sleepy English village to probate a will. Arthur is still haunted by the death of his wife during childbirth, and this seemingly simple assignment won’t soothe his pysche any.

As Arthur soon discovers, the town itself is haunted by the vengeful spirit of the title character. There’s an inordinately high rate of child mortality, about which the villagers don’t speak. Mr. Daily (Ciaran Hinds), one of the few people to treat Arthur civilly, scoffs at their fears, yet his furtive glances indicate that he knows more than he’s letting on.

There’s not a lot of blood spilled in The Woman in Black, but there’s plenty of rot and decay on display as Arthur tries to solve the mystery and prevent any further deaths. Director James Watkins gooses the audience with a number of well-placed jolts, particularly as Arthur walks the halls of the aptly named (and aptly eerie) Eel Marsh House, where all of the trouble began years before.

Perhaps it’s leftover baggage from the Potter films, but Radcliffe is an immediately engaging and empathetic hero. He’s not quite left behind his boyish demeanor, but he’s comfortable playing a more grown-up role and given fine support by the always welcome Hinds and current Oscar nominee Janet McTeer, as Mr. Daily’s wife, herself consumed with grief over a past tragedy.

The Woman in Black is hokum, to be sure, but enjoyable and well-made hokum — just the sort of treat to send shivers down the spines of genre aficionados. It’s played straight, but not so straight that its sense of fun is squelched.

from Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure, which was itself based on John Kerr’s book A Most Dangerous Method.

Not unlike Cronenberg’s 1991 adaptation of M. Butterfly, however, A Dangerous Method ranks as something of a misfire. The film is certainly not without interest — Cronenberg is incapable of making an uninteresting one — yet he seems hamstrung by fidelity to the source material. Most of Cronenberg’s best films are those which he wrote or co-wrote himself, with some exceptions (The Dead Zone, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises).

The film explores the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), the woman who came between them (in a manner of speaking). As an example of historical fiction, A Dangerous Method is as uneven as it is ambitious.

Sabina comes to Jung first as a patient, then later becomes his research assistant — which indicates that Jung may not be looking at the big picture. Probing areas of the mind is an intimate business, and in attempting to determine the reasons for Sabina’s neuroses, Jung crosses the line, both ethically and morally. How better to explore impulses, reasons Jung, than by acting on them? Psychoanalysis is hardly an exact science, a notion compounded (rather heavily) in Hampton’s screenplay.

Perhaps intentionally, the three pivotal character seem to be on different wavelengths and played as such, but this tends to throw the story off-balance. Fassbender, who previously explored a character’s sexuality in the recent Shame, plays Jung in somber, serious fashion, while Knightley emanates a nervous energy that has nothing to bounce off of. No matter how intimate their characters become, there’s little chemistry generated in their scenes together.

Mortensen has the easiest time of it here, playing Freud with a subtle indulgence. This is a character who knows full well that his place in history is assured, and woe to those who attempt to challenge that.

Matters of the mind come to the fore in David Cronenberg’s latest film A Dangerous Method , opening Friday and adapted