Set in the early 1920s as Britain staggers from the shock of the first world war, The Awakening is a classic ghost story in the mould of The Innocents (1961) and The Others (2001). The great loss of life during the war has created a boom for fraudulent mediums exploiting the tragedies of others. Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall in a spirited performance) a ghost hunter and author, works with the police to expose these activities, something for which the victims are often ungrateful. Florence’s book on the subject, attracts the attention of Robert Mallory (Dominic West) a school master who arrives on her doorstep claiming that a real ghost is haunting the boarding school where he works. Mallory is unimpressed with Florence, finding her rationalism towards the topic all too certain. However he has been despatched to bring the matter to her attention by the school’s matron (Staunton). Despite a frosty first meeting, Florence is intrigued and heads to the rural school to investigate. Of course there are deep rooted reasons for her interest in the supernatural, and the investigation will uncover dark secrets rooted in both corporeal and incorporeal realms.
There is much to enjoy in this film, the performances are strong. Hall shows she can carry a lead role and invests her character with real strength. West brings dignity and depth to his character, a war veteran bearing both physical and psychological scars. Young actor Isaac Hempstead Wright (Brann Stark in TV’s Game of Thrones) is good as the one child left behind at the school during holidays, which is when the film’s plot kicks up a gear. Imelda Staunton is of course quality as ever. The actors often tease out the more interesting subtexts of the story - in particular the survivor guilt, loneliness and damage caused by the war.
Murphy mounts some effective set-pieces, a seance that opens the film, Hall pursuing a ghost through the school at night using Sherlock Holmesian detection skills. However the film never succeeds in being particularly frightening, let alone generating the sense of creeping dread that the best ghost stories do. However it is only fair to point out that at the London Film Festival screening I attended, it was clear that many of these sequences worked very well for other members of the audience. In fact a woman screamed at one point!
It is clear that the filmmakers know their ghost stories, and that The Awakening is an unashamed genre piece. The problem for horror fans is that the film too clearly wears its influences, whilst not quite being the equal of them. The film is stuffed with visual references to other chillers, a billiard ball bouncing down stairs evokes The Changeling (1980), the ghostly child with a bag over their head reminds viewers of The Orphanage (2007), the boarding school setting The Devil’s Backbone (2001). These comparisons are almost never entirely flattering to Murphy’s film but for viewers not so steeped in the genre this is less of an issue. What is more of a problem to a general audience is the films’ pacing. The first half, while never boring, takes too long to develop. This leads to a frantic final third, where too many twists come too quickly and some apparently crucial plot strands are revealed to be red herrings. The audience is put in the position of trying to unravel some very complex plot developments that demand one reassess what has come before. However before one has time to do this, another huge twist comes along and smacks the viewer on the back of the head. The result is narrative concussion, and although the fog eventually clears and the various plot strands do fall into place, the mental gymnastics required to process this result in a loss of tension and suspense.
The film is shot by the very talented Spanish cinematographer Eduard Grau (Buried, A Single Man) and looks very handsome. However Murphy and Grau have made the decision to desaturate the colours making the film look cold and wintery. This was an artistic decision made by Murphy to suggest that the country is psychologically sick in the wake of the war. This just didn’t work for me at all. For one thing I associate illness with fever and heat, the colour jaundiced yellow colour palate used by Guillermo Del Toro on The Devil’s Backbone for example. More crucially the coldness of the film is emotionally distancing.
I genuinely wish I had liked the film more. It is gratifying to see proper resources being given to a genre film by the UK film industry, we should be making more films like this. Sadly The Awakening, for all the talent involved, fails because it tries to pack in too many twists and turns and fails to make the first division of ghost stories.
EXTRAS ★★★★ An audio commentary with director and co-writer Murphy; a behind-the-scenes featurette; the featurette Anatomy of a Scene: Florence and the Lake; the featuretteA Time for ghosts; the featurette Anatomy of a Scream; a deleted scene with an introduction from Murphy; an interview with Murphy; a Bafta Q&A; the theatrical trailer.