The Awakening

Ah, that old standby, the period ghost story. For an apparently moribund genre, there have been quite a few of these over the past few years, including The Others and The Orphanage. (Clearly it’s obligatory that the title begin with ‘The’ – one thinks of The Shining and The Sixth Sense, though those two were cleverly set in contemporary times.) One looks forward to certain pleasures, such as character actors doing Their Bit, sinister red herring bit part appearances, immaculate settings and some ‘made-ya-jump!’ shocks. One also looks forward to convoluted stories with clever twists, almost redolent of mystery novels as much as supernatural thrillers. What one doesn’t tend to expect are edge of seat thrills, genuinely terrifying moments (although The Orphange had at least one sequence, involving Geraldine Chaplin, that’s about as scary as anything I’ve ever seen) and superb acting.

The Awakening, directed by TV veteran Nick Murphy, surprises on one front. The acting, especially from Rebecca Hall, is quite superb. As ghost hunter and hokum debunker Florence Catchcart, an independent woman out of place in a 1921 Britain still reeling from the first world war, she is good enough to convince you within moments that she’s a real human being, not just some artificial and anachronistic construct (a la Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw in BBC’s The Hour). This is just as well, as the film teeters on the fine line between being an involving, clever and unexpectedly moving piece of classy drama, and a derivative and absurd mish-mash of clichés. If it ultimately comes out on the side of the former, it’s a close-run thing.

Florence Catchart, after a well-done opening that sees her expose a fraudulent séance, is visited by schoolmaster and war veteran Robert Mallory (Dominic West), who asks her advice in discovering what appears to be a haunting at his school.  A confirmed sceptic, Catchcart soon finds a logical explanation for the appearances. However, once the pupils disappear on half term, she realises that something altogether more sinister is going on. Might kindly matron Maud (Imelda Staunton) be involved? Why is there only one pupil left behind? And does dodgy groundsman Judd (Joseph Mawle) know more than he’s letting on?

Anyone who’s ever seen more than one film like this will guess many of the developments. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s co-written by genre specialist Stephen Volk, whose credits include the infamous Ghostwatch, Ken Russell’s Gothic and the Andrew Lincoln TV series Afterlife.) The ‘boo!’ moments are competently handled, if occasionally nonsensical, and Hall does an excellent job of managing to make a fairly rote character seem entirely convincing. West broods convincingly, perhaps suggesting a darker side (although one bit doesn’t make any sense, at least not on first viewing – if you need a clue, it involves him saying something off-camera in his room) and Staunton is reliably warm and excellent in the sort of role that middle-aged character actresses excel in.

The problems come with some of the final revelations. I’m fully in favour of films that choose to tie up the supernatural goings-on in a more psychologically grounded way – practically all the best ones do – but the eventual flood of explanations for what happens, including some very credibility-straining actions from characters, stretches believability about as far as it will go. It’s also slightly unfortunate that the denouement bears a startling resemblance to a pivotal scene in the Peter Jackson-directed The Frighteners. All the same, it pays off satisfyingly enough on a narrative level, and there’s a rather sly visual joke in the final scene that perhaps suggests that the film isn’t nearly as po-faced as it might appear to be.

So not a flawless triumph – but well worth a watch, if only for Hall who, on this evidence, could probably make reading the telephone directory a compelling and affecting experience. Repeated viewings will tell whether it holds together, but this is solidly entertaining fare nonetheless.

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One Response to “The Awakening”

  1. Gutters…

    […]The Awakening « Mutterings from the gutter[…]…

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