The Awakening (2011)
(15) Running time: 107 minutes
Director: Nick Murphy
Writers: Stephen Volk, Nick Murphy
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
Taking its influences from genre classics such as The Innocents, The Others and even The Sixth Sense, and blending it with the unique atmosphere of recent Spanish horrors such as The Orphanage, The Awakening is a worthy addition to the more dramatic supernatural horror. Director Nick Murphy makes his feature film debut here, and has truly left a lasting impression on this reviewer, and I look forward to more of the same. He has also cast Rebecca Hall as the lead actress, and this is probably Hall’s biggest screen performance in terms of the amount of screen time she has, and the turmoil’s she has to go through. Hall, for the most part, lives up to the challenge, and helps make The Awakening a fascinating tale of the supernatural and one woman’s doubts.
Set in 1921 England, Hall plays Florence Cathcart, a woman who thinks for herself and who refuses to get caught up in the belief that ghosts exist. With the film set just after WW1, the people who have suffered great losses believe in ghosts and the afterlife far more than people do nowadays, yet Cathcart goes out of her way to prove otherwise. The film opens with a wonderful scene involving a séance, and how Cathcart proves it is all a hoax. Hall commands the screen, and lets us know exactly who is charge right from the get go. As she tries to detach herself both from her reputation and her job, school teacher and ex-soldier Robert Mallory (West) comes knocking at her door. He brings news of a ghost at his secluded boarding school for boys, he shows pictures of years past which prove the ghost to be real. Finally, after some discussion at how pupils would run from one end of a class photo to the other to create a ‘ghost’ like effect for the camera, Mallory shows the final picture, and the boy is in a window looking down on the class, the same boy from years before…
This wonderful scene of learning the story is expertly designed for maximum involvement from the viewer, and it should find you feeling slightly disturbed. In protest, Cathcart agrees to go to the school to see if in fact the ghost is real, or better still, prove it to be a hoax. Once at the school, and with the boys about to go off on their holidays, Cathcart quickly settles in, talking to the boys and noticing some of the teachers more unorthodox forms of punishment. Apart from the story of the ghost which apparently caused the death of one of the pupils, there are other issues: Mallory’s hatred of the school caretaker who avoided fighting in the war, one particular teacher who enjoys using the cane a little too much, issues with some pupils being bullied by other pupils, and the look of constant uncertainty of matron Maud Hill’s (Staunton) face. Imelda Staunton does a terrific job as the matron, with her often puzzled yet damaged look on her face, it would seem she has something to say, but doesn’t quite know how to say it.
To delve any further into the story would be dangerous, and I would hate to spoil things for you. What I will say is that this is not a full on horror, but more an emotional drama with a supernatural edge. The performances are strong, believable and effective, and each and every character, from a pupil of the school to Hall’s turn as Florence Cathcart, all lead the story well. The atmosphere is superb, with a few scenes which are genuinely frightening, and the setting is nothing short of perfect. The school itself is a fantastic design, allowing Murphy to really use its corridors, grounds and darkened rooms to great and often chilling effect. The cinematography is outstanding, and sometimes it is hard not to gaze in wonder at such beautiful designs. The film feels authentic, Hall delivers her lines like someone slightly unsure of her own possible misjudgements, while West could just as easily be starring in a film about World War 1. The use of candles allows for some more moments of unease, while mist in the schools grounds give way to some frightening and shocking scenes outside the building. Everything here is designed not for maximum terror, but for maximum drama and plenty of emotion, with the added element of a supernatural story.
Come the final act, the film does seem to run away with its own ideas, and while it manages to hold it together (just), the film very nearly loses itself. It does become a little confusing, and very slightly ridiculous, and I found the big reveal to be dragged out a little too much. Hall, for such a brilliant performance, does buckle under the pressure more than once, especially come the end, but she can hold her head up high as for the most part she is very very good. The Awakening is effective, emotional, slightly scary and often unsettling. This is a thinking person’s horror, a horror for those who want something a bit more rustic, a good old fashioned yarn which doesn’t go all out to terrify you, but gets under your skin at times and catches you off guard. This is great stuff, and long may this boom of old fashioned ghost stories continue.