1921. England is overwhelmed by the loss and grief of World War I and following the Spanish flu, the opening titles tell us ‘this is a time for ghosts’
Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is an author and investigator bent on ridding post-WWI London of ghost hoaxes and faux-psychic swindlers. Entering the film in the midst of a debunking sting, Cathcart’s the kind of no-nonsense detective who might be the hero of a series of mystery novels. Hired by teacher Robert Mallory (Dominic West) to investigate a possibly ghost-related death at a boarding school in the country, she breaks out a fun toolkit of reactive chemical powders, trip wires and electromagnetics and delivers a Holmes-like explanation in short order
But a funny thing happens before she can leave the campus with another victory in hand: she sees a ghost
With school out for the term, Florence explores the case while sharing the oversize manor with only a sad schoolmarm Maud Hill (the always excellent Imelda Staunton, whose worried performance brings mystery, Mallory, creepy handyman Edward Judd (Joseph Mawle) and a lonely student, Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), who must stay through the holiday since he can’t join his parents in India
A resurgence in the supernatural chiller has happened in recent years that has re-acquired the lost gothica through films like The Sixth Sense, The Others, The Devils Backbone, The Orphanage and the sort of low key cinema that isn’t afraid to tread in period waters with rounded characters and an affecting story in favour of gratuity and gore
The Awakening adds to this tradition bringing the period ghost story back with an elegant tale of murder, mystery, terror and revelation. While it’s often entertaining enough to have a simple ghost story set in a different era, this tale is something more. Beautifully shot through the gloomy lens of Eduard Grau, director Nick Murphy transports us to the purgatory of England in mourning during the 1920s
Stricken by the guilt and the personal isolation of the post war years, the fear encapsulated in the dark halls and unforgiving teachers/survivors of the haunted boys school seems palpable, crushing almost. Rebecca Hall’s Cathcart is an inspiring rendition of a strong willed cynic, really a haunted woman trying to outrun the misery of her blighted past. Her 20s style ghost hunting gadgetry is more engrossing than any hackneyed modern devices, though you may struggle initially with Cathcart as a character, trying to imagine such a strong willed protagonist pre-feminism. But Hall’s performance wins you over, persuading you that her cold and clinical method comes from a darker place, her cynical requirement a self protective barrier that she has erected by necessity
The pace of the film is played staccato, long silences are interrupted by bursts of mayhem. The moment you feel secure the beautifully gothic score from Daniel Pemberton begins to wail and assures you you are not. The feeling of guilt and sadness weigh heavily amongst the cast and indeed the boys of the school are wrapped in similar isolated and fearful conditions. Add to this the ghost of a boy and the death of another and you have a melting pot of emotional turmoil
The boys are painted a combination of both cliquish and terrified as subjects not just to a haunting, but to the backlash of a generation of men who were forced to toughen up before their time, resulting in displays of behaviour that today would rank as odious, but then was par for the course. It’s this eye for detail that allows you to become immersed in the bleakness of the circumstances. Rising discomfort floods through the screen and the suffocating sense of dread is enough to buckle the most hardened supernatural aficionado
The excellent Dominic West wears survivors guilt behind a stolid exterior, while secretly he’s cramped with the traumas of war and death. Imelda Staunton similarly hides her emotions behind the poker face of duty, her real motivations a harder nut to crack. The mystery is infused with the raw emotions of the cast and melts perfectly into a study of sadness and of a yearning to be healed. These are the things that will in turn yield the answers to the haunting and the dead, rather than the science that Hall’s Cathcart finds is falling short
The Awakening is a film full of twists and turns, with a plot that will mislead you and intrigue you right to the denoument. Despite it’s short falls in what seemed a slightly rushed final act, it is a truly superb piece of the eerie. A tale as much driven by excellent character as it is by a rich plot thick with scares and misdirection, The Awakening gives thriller fans more than they’re trained to expect. Go see it!
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