A retro-feel English ghost story with a passable twist, “Blackwood” gives with one hand while taking away with the other. Debuting feature director Adam Wimpenny, a graduate of musicvideos, commercials and television, overcomes a limited budget with evident style and technical proficiency. But his facility with actors is less apparent, eliciting an inert performance from lead thesp Ed Stoppard (“Upstairs Downstairs”) as a history professor trying to unlock the grisly secret of his titular new countryside home. Ancillary and specialist fest play rep the film’s best chances for further hauntings.
Following a nervous breakdown in his previous prestigious academic post, Ben (Stoppard) strives for a healthier work-life balance at his new job, giving purposeful attention to his wife, Rachel (Sophia Myles), and young son, Harry (Isaac Andrews). But it soon becomes evident that Blackwood is not the peaceful rural retreat envisioned, and Ben is disturbed by visions that connect to the house’s previous elderly occupant, now living in a care home, as well as to local gamekeeper and former soldier Jack (Russell Tovey), lank-haired vicar Father Patrick (Paul Kaye), and a missing woman and her young son. Adding to his unease: The arrival of rakish old pal and fellow academic Dominic (Greg Wise), whose latest squeeze is flirtatious research assistant Jessica (Joanna Vanderham).
Wise twinkles proficiently, if rather generically, as the dashing Dominic, and Tovey makes a decent stab at boozy burnout Jack, self-medicating his post-traumatic stress disorder in his lonely woodland cottage. But an actor of more evident charisma than Stoppard might have added heft to the flatly conceived Ben, who’s rarely off the screen. Notably it’s Andrews, a child actor who may have required little in the way of direction, who registers as the most vividly natural screen presence.
Reteaming with Wimpenny after the 2009 short “Roar,” scribe J.S. Hill here displays a decent grasp of genre storytelling, although there’s a faintly musty air of an old episode of Brit TV’s “Tales of the Unexpected.” Craftily conceived bits of misdirection achieve their purpose without resorting to clumsy cheats, but one particular final-act lurch capsizes the film’s credibility just as it’s hurtling toward its violent climax. Repeated closeups of timepieces provide a nifty visual device; if artist Christian Marclay ever plans to refresh his 24-hour “The Clock,” he’ll find ample material here.
For much of its running time, “Blackwood” is an effective mood piece, with enough intrigue to push the audience past the various bumps in the road. But its greatest achievement will be to burnish the credentials of a skilled crew, notably lenser Dale McCready (TV’s “Merlin,” “Atlantis”), overcoming scant resource with admirable facility.