Thursday, March 15, 2012

Naming the Harlot: The Woman In Black

James Watkins' thriller The Woman In Black displays all the advantages of great scripting, stage crafting and technique: while a simple narrative, rich details included by the director and art department make the film a treasure chest of reading possibilities (as I posited in my initial post, Queen Victoria, Monkeys & the Catholic Church: The Woman In Black). Upon my second viewing of the film, I would like to add a new element of interpretative possibilities and a further dimension to one all ready discussed; we will do the new element of interpretation first.
Eel Marsh House, the residence of Alice Drablow and the place where everything takes place in the film, becomes a museum of Great Britain: like the great country itself, Eel Marsh House is an island cut off by water (just as Britain is cut off by water); inside the house, all the portraits, the furniture, the diverse rooms and statues, could all be understood as elements of the past of English history, with the struggle between two sisters the ultimate historical drama the story wants to explore, like Arthur creeping through the house.
Inside Eel Marsh House: when Arthur arrives, Alice Drablow has been deceased for only a month, yet the house looks as if it has been abandoned for years; it's not a mistake between the script and art department, rather, we are to understand the dilapidated state in a more symbolic manner rather than just the dust, grime and filth of naturally occurring decay. Something has caused this decay to take place, something has caused the grounds of the house to fall to ruin and something has caused the dust to settle in thick heaps; all these details invite us, like the woman in black herself beckoning Arthur to the cemetery, to peer in and see a greater mystery.
Little Nathaniel, the son of Jennet Humphrey (the woman in black), who was taken by his aunt Alice and her husband Charles, died in 1889 by drowning in mud. What complicates this issue, is a brief moment of the film suggests that Nathaniel was also conceived in mud. Taken theologically, which we will do in greater detail below, it would suggest that Nathaniel was both born in and died in a state of sin (sin as a filth to the soul symbolized by the mud because no mention is ever made of Nathaniel's father because he was, legally speaking, a bastard); but what about the soul of the country?
The round object in the immediate center is the head of the child, Nathaniel, coming up out of the bed through an area with a "supernatural" mud stain occurring upon the linens. Why? Since his mother Jennet was not married, Nathaniel was conceived in sin, hence the mud "which gives rise to him" and Arthur witnesses, unlike his own son, Joseph, whose mother gave her life's blood for him (the birthing stains upon her bed linens contrasted with Jennet's).
In 1882, the Married Women's Property Act was passed which greatly altered the ability of women entering the state of matrimony to control their own property and money; heretofore, when a woman married, everything became the property of her husband. The law didn't take effect until 1883, however, which--according to the film--Nathaniel was all ready born to a woman not in a state of marriage (thereby in control of her own property).  It can be argued then, that Jennet was anxious to stay unwed, regardless of being pregnant, for the sake of money and that is the "mud" and filth into which Nathaniel was born: greed.
Nathaniel covered in the mud in which he drowned. Not having a biological father, it suggests that, given the plethora of monkeys filling his room (and that his adopted father's name was Charles) the father of evolution, Charles Darwin, is the "father" of those children born in the same circumstances as Nathaniel.
 Just as Nathaniel was conceived in mud, so did he die.
What happened in Britain in 1889 when Nathaniel drowned?
The "Children's Charter," or Prevention of Cruelty to, and Protection of, Children Act was passed. The law "enabled the state to intervene, for the first time, in relations between parents and children. Police could arrest anyone found ill-treating a child, and enter a home if a child was thought to be in danger. The act included guidelines on the employment of children and outlawed begging." This little fact illuminates the bitter struggle for us between sisters and the role the state took in their dispute.
Arthur first entering Eel Marsh House and the grand staircase. As always, in great horror films, going up the stairs means one enters into a higher plane of consciousness, or thought (which is why scenes taking place on the "upper floors" are confusing to audiences because they are highly symbolic). There is also the element that, as Arthur enters the house, he enters into himself. This is an entirely different approach to the one we are currently discussing, yet, "opening the door" means Arthur opens the door into himself as well. Most of what Arthur does is read in the house, and it is through his reading of documents (pictured below) that he learns of the legal and intimate battle over guardianship of Nathaniel.
We would automatically think such an act would be desirous, that children should be protected from such awful treatment, but The Woman In Black provides a glimpse of what happens the moment the state is allowed to interfere in the relationship between the parents and children: they are separated, just as Nathaniel was separated from Jennet. Jennet being separated from Nathaniel means he is put in the guardianship of the state, symbolized by Charles and Alice who, as I have mentioned in my previous post, could be invocations of writer Charles Dickens or scientist Charles Darwin (who died in 182, the year Nathaniel was born, so that makes it more probable) and Alice of Alice's Adventures In Wonderland (because Lewis Carroll's real name was Charles).
One of the dolls of the three Fisher girls, note the mud splattered on the face.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland aren't about Wonderland at all, rather, about the craziness and nonsense of society, created by the state who, creating the law in 1889, could take children into their custody and be taught according to the writings of Charles Darwin about how they "rose" from micro-organisms in the earth and water and, since there is no after-life in Darwinism, we return to earth and water when we die. Not being taught any religion by the state then, little Nathaniel would have been condemned to hell for not "being saved." The writing on the wall in Nathaniel's bedroom, "You could have saved him," meant that he could have at least been baptized, but instead of being saved in the sacrament of "life-giving water," he was lost in the mud. This adds a rather new layer of understanding to Jennet's own suicide, self-murder, to condemn herself to hell so be with her son.
Nathaniel's room with the wallpaper that has the alphabet and the monkey, to the left, which starts playing the music in just a moment. Please note how,  just by Arthur's right arm, is a curtain, pulled back for no apparent reason. In art, stemming from the medieval era, a curtain pulled back implied that something was "being revealed," and in this room, the "writing is on the wall."
An important clue to understanding why the woman in black takes the children of other couples is that the parents are never there when the children kill themselves. The presence of the "demon woman" inserting itself in place of the parents is a perverse illustration of the way Alice arranged for Nathaniel to be taken from Jennet and the state inserted itself in the place of the parents. (Now, of course, it can be argued how hypocritical is Jennet being, she had an illicit relationship with a man to conceive Nathaniel, so how religious could she be? But it is important that among the undelivered birthday cards for Nathaniel was also the rosary which Arthur places upon Nathaniel's body in his bedroom).
Nathaniel's room, towards the end when Arthur attempts to re-unite mother and son. The rocking chair plays an enormous role in the characterization of Jennet and what happened to her. Typically, a rocking chair is used by mothers to rock their children to sleep. Not having a child to rock to sleep, Jennet uses it to rock herself to "eternal" sleep, death.
And now for something completely different.
The hallmark of a great story is that it can be understood upon so many different levels, that there is always something else, always something new to discover within it. In my previous post, I discussed how the "woman in black" could be understood by the English Anglicans to be the Roman Catholic Church, which has recently made concessions to Anglicans wanting to leave that rite to leave the English Church and become Catholic (please see Queen Victoria, Monkeys and the Catholic Church: The Woman In Black for details).
Arthur reading the papers providing him with the information to understand what happened between Alice and Jennet. The pages and pages of writings and documents aren't just Alice's papers, they are the very archives of England, the great stories and literature of the age and just as we read them, so Arthur reads it and forms his own ideas and interpretations of what happened between Jennet and Alice as if reading Alice In Wonderland.
Like the woman in black always looking over Arthur's shoulder (I myself am a convert to the Roman Church), the Anglican Church might feel the Catholic Church to be waiting for every chance to "steal her Anglican children" from her. When Arthur goes through the papers, and finds the letters written in Jennet's crazy scrawling handwriting, Jennet calls her sister Alice a "harlot" and tells her to "rot in hell." Importantly, these provocations are written upon religious images so it invites a religious/theological interpretation.
Jennet hangs ominously in the background watching Arthur.
The original reason for the split between the Catholic and Anglican churches were the accusations of sinfulness (the filth of sin) in the Roman Church and the Roman Church accused the Anglican king Henry VIII of being promiscuous because he broke off relations with the church to have relations with Anne Boleyn. The name calling in the writings of Jennet to her sister could be likened to the papal bulls condemning Queen Elizabeth I to hell for heresy.
In order to get the locked bedroom of Nathaniel open, Arthur has to go down and get a hatchet, suggesting that there is a hatchet that has to be buried.
Yet this is where great film making happens.
In Nathaniel's room, the room of a small boy, when Arthur enters for the first time, as he pulls out a trunk from underneath the bed, to Arthur's left, on the wall, small but definite, is the paining of a nude woman lying upon a bed. We are not to take this as Nathaniel being exposed to pornography, rather, that his mother, in conceiving him out of wedlock, was the harlot, not Alice (as Jennet called her). While it's a small detail, it's an important detail, playing into Biblical imagery of the Roman Church being the "harlot of Babylon" because of the sins of its members.
The woman in black inciting Lucy to burn herself to death. Taken in conjunction with little Victoria who drank lye, a cleaning agent, and fire is a purgative symbol, we could understand the woman in black as inciting children to "penance" in cleansing their souls violently because Nathaniel died in the filth of sin.
In conclusion, for now anyway, there is a myriad of readings possible for this fabulous film, and little details can mean a great deal. Whether the laws of the time or the religious dialogues today, films can draw our attention to dramas that would have escaped our notice were it not for the accomplished artistry of the film makers themselves.