It’s 1921, and Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is doing brisk business as an author and professional ghost chaser. She never actually catches any spirits though because her specialty is in disproving their existence. Using a combination of common sense, high (and low) tech gadgetry and deductive reasoning she debunks charlatans and identifies the true causes behind supposed hauntings.
Post-WWI England is a country still reeling from the loss of over a million lives. The war and the cruelty of influenza have left behind millions more mourning their loved ones and ripe for exploitation at the hands of so-called mediums and psychics. Cathcart relishes the moment when she reveals them as liars and thieves even if some of the customers prefer the fakery as a form of comfort. But each unveiling of the truth also comes with a tinge of sadness for her. She doesn’t believe in the afterlife, but that doesn’t mean that some small part of her doesn’t wish it existed.
When Robert Mallory (Dominic West) appears, wanting her help investigating recent ghostly sightings at a boys boarding school in the countryside, her instinct is to say no, but she eventually accepts the opportunity to expose yet another fraud. Her expectations of man-made shenanigans are quickly met.
And then the real ghosts arrive.
“I don’t think there’s a place on earth where people understand loneliness better than here.”
Mallory’s story involves a young student who recently died after being frightened by the ghost of another boy murdered there decades earlier. The ghostly child has been witnessed by others and even appears in the school’s annual class photos. It’s enough “evidence” to get Cathcart intrigued, but just when she thinks she’s identified the very human culprit events take a darker turn. The school was once a home, and Cathcart’s about to learn what went on within its walls.
Fans of old fashioned ghost stories set in earlier times will find much to enjoy in The Awakening. It bears more than a passing resemblance to recent haunters like The Orphanage and The Others (and older ones like The Innocents and The Changeling), but what it lacks in originality it makes up for with its characters and performances. West leaves his usual tough exterior behind in favor of a far more recognizable and humane man who finds himself caught up in something far greater than he can understand. Imelda Staunton also impresses as the school’s main housekeeper, Maud Hill. It’s a small but pivotal role filled with nuance that just might be missed on an initial viewing.
Cathcart in particular is an engaging female lead imbued with confidence and a subtle sexuality that helps her stand apart. Hall has always been a strong actor, but it’s usually been on display in smaller roles with lesser purpose. Here she shows charisma and strength enough to carry a film of her own as she leads viewers through the emotionally affecting mystery at the heart of the haunting.
Co-writer/director Nick Murphy treats his characters well (and viewers too with a nice post-bath shot of Hall) and creates some suitably frightening set pieces, but he loses his way a bit in the third act when he tries to fill the film with too many twists and revelations. It becomes more than a little convoluted, and worse, too many threads are left unanswered or explained. It’s not a question of leaving phenomena a mystery as much as it is a problem with plot holes and elements that don’t seem to fit.
The Awakening is absent a big, memorable twist to leave viewers gaping and instead offers up some smaller ones of varied quality. That’s neither a good nor a bad thing on its own, but it’s indicative of the film as a whole. There are some chills and thrills, but aside from Hall’s lead performance there’s not a lot here to echo about in your memory days and weeks later.
The Upside: Rebecca Hall; interesting emotional element.
The Downside: Digital ghost effects are the opposite of scary; probable plot holes; underwhelming at times.
On the Side: The Awakening is Rebecca Hall’s first foray into horror unless you count Dorian Gray (or The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends).
The Awakening opens in limited release on Friday, August 17th.