With the recent influx of spooky films from Spain such as Julia’s Eyes and The Orphanage, not to mention the success of less restrained chillers like Insidious and Paranormal Activity, ghost stories seem ripe for a full-blown revival here in England. There’s Hammer’s Woman in Black adaptation on the way, but this period horror is first out of the gate.
1921. Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) has made a name for herself debunking ghost stories in an England dying for proof of the other side. When she’s asked to investigate a possible haunting at a boy’s boarding school, she thinks it’ll be business as usual. She quickly discovers that something sinister is going on, but is the threat in fact supernatural?
The Awakening doesn’t exactly strive to break new ground. It’s a combination of that continental influence (The Orphanage and The Devil’s Backbone are the obvious touchstones) and classic horror films, some British, some American (The Changeling, The Turn of the Screw, and an occasional dash of Hammer). There’s the forbidding boarding school populated by lonely children that have been dispatched to darkest Cumbria (beautifully shot), war heroes, draft dodgers, not to mention the hard-to-read matron.
Things get off to a good start. There’s a pervasive air of melancholy and loss that serves the film well. Florence’s scepticism is combined with a sharp sense of humour and the underrated Hall (The Prestige, The Town) is perfectly cast and grabs a rare lead role by the throat. She also has great chemistry with Dominic West (The Wire, The Hour), who plays the battle-scarred history teacher/love interest Mallory. The lead cast is rounded out by the peerless Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake, Harry Potter), who manages to keep the audience guessing with her wonderfully measured portrayal of earnest matron Maud.
But despite the committed performances from the three leads, The Awakening never quite achieves the oppressive atmosphere or sense of growing terror it aims for. Director Nick Murphy has shot the film to be deathly pale, and there are some expertly handled sequences of building tension (the doll’s house is a nice touch). However, the inside of the boarding school never seems as cavernous as the exterior implies or needs to be. There are several twists and turns but the ones that are handled well are too often followed by ones that aren’t. Florence’s motivation (she disproves ghosts because she wants to find one that exists) is established early and repeated often but it doesn’t account for some questionable decisions as the film progresses, while Mallory’s vanishing stutter is a particularly jarring example of several moments of bad continuity.
As it makes its way towards the end, there’s a lot to appreciate about The Awakening. It’s well-shot, and it’s certainly well-acted. But the pieces never quite add up to a satisfactory whole.
Verdict: If you’re in the mood for some restrained chills, The Awakening has its charms and Hall, West, and Staunton are on fine form. While it doesn’t live up to its predecessors, the good outweighs the bad...just about.