Interwoven with no small balance of elegant dread, melodrama, and literary allusions, Nick Murphy's The Awakening is a clever British horror film that plays its scares straight while burying a deeply complicated plot in an apparently simple set-up. Set during the darkest days of World War I, it stars Rebecca Hall as Florence Cathcart, a woman with a deeply empirical mind who spends much of her time debunking supernatural phenomena (in one of the first scenes, she pulls the curtain back on a bogus sance).
Both extremely intelligent and intensely lonely, willful and fragile, Rebecca buries her sense of loss (her husband was killed in the war) in her occupation, which brings her to a remote boys' boarding school that is housed in a former mansion in Cumbria in northwest England. She is summoned there by Robert Mallory (Dominic West), one of the school's teachers and himself a veteran of the war, at the behest of the headmaster, Reverend Hugh Purslow (John Shrapnel). Some of the boys have been claiming to see a ghost in the school, and one of the students was recently found dead, a tragedy that may have been related to the alleged haunting. The school's matron, Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton), is a fervent admirer of Rebecca's; not only has she read her book, Seeing Through Ghosts, but she keeps it on her nightstand.
There is plenty of suspicion to go around, and the screenplay by Murphy and Stephen Volk (writer of Ken Russell's 1986 film Gothic and the infamous 1992 BBC series Ghostwatch) does a good job of making it equally possible that it is all a big hoax and that there is a genuine spiritual disturbance (even though we know, at some point, it will be revealed to be the latter). Of course, Florence doesn't believe hauntings and ghosts (when Mallory calls her a "ghost hunter," she replies, "Well, you can't hunt what doesn't exist"), so she sets about revealing the culprit with her trunk of early 20th-century ghostbusting equipment, which involves powder, trip wires, and flash cameras. She is not easily frightened since she doesn't believe in experiences outside of what science and empirical observation can prove, but there is something decidedly wrong at the school, something that gnaws at her and us.
However, in an unexpected turn of events, Florence solves the mystery with more than half the film left to go, which sets up a major expectation that there is not only more to come, but a lot more. And, for the most part, the film delivers with a series of increasingly twisty revelations about not just the nature of the school's supposed hauntings, but the relationships among a number of the characters. Armchair Freudians will have a field day with all the repressed memories, incessant trauma, and psychosexual connections, which Murphy keeps bound tightly together via the omnipresence of the Great War, which is constantly evoked via those who died in it (Florence's husband), those who served and were wounded in it (Robert), and those who evaded it (Shaun Dooley's abusive teacher and Joseph Mawle's conniving groundskeeper). Florence also develops a budding relationship with Tom Hill (Isaac Hempstead Wright), a young student who is left behind at the school when everyone else is sent home because his parents are abroad. Like everyone else, there is more to Tom than we initially suspect, but more important is the way he draws out Florence's maternal instincts and places her in an emotional situation that her otherwise uninterrupted focus on her objective work doesn't allow for (the same could be said of Robert, with whom she develops a romantic attraction).
The Awakening is awash in allusions to Henry James's 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw and Jack Clayton's masterful film version The Innocents (1961), which also hinges on a damaged woman dealing with ghosts that may or may not be projections of her own psychological trauma and repression. Rebecca Hall is excellent as Florence, as she gives her a sense of both intense confidence and extreme vulnerability that provides weight and pathos to the later plot mechanics, which otherwise might be written off as simply a clever exercise in misdirection. Murphy, who has worked primarily in British television, and cinematographer Eduard Grau (A Single Man, The Gift) keep things gloomy and desaturated, which contributes to both the overhanging sense of dread and the historical register in which the film unfolds. The war and its many scars are vital to the film's emotional and thematic effectiveness, which makes The Awakening more than just a knowing riff on ghost stories and folk tales.
Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Kino Lorber
Overall Rating: (3)
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