Movie Review: The Awakening

PrintE-mail Written by Paul Mount


Review: The Awakening (15) / Directed by: Nick Murphy / Screenplay by: Nick Murphy, Stephen Volk / Starring: Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton, Shaun Dooley, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Lucy Cohu

No-one’s able to tell a good, old-fashioned spine-tingling ghost story any more. Where are the new stories about shadowy half-seen figures, something moving in the corner of your eye, inexplicable sounds carried on a breeze in the night? Gone forever, you might think, in these days of explicit gore and body horror, where no throat is left unslashed and queasy torture porn’s the name of the game. ‘The Awakening’, from director Nick Murphy and co-writer Stephen Volk (who terrified a generation back in 1991 with the extraordinary and controversial BBC pseudo-drama ‘Ghostwatch’ and impressed more recently with ITV’s underrated ‘Afterlife’ supernatural drama) is a compelling and atmospheric antidote to all that pumping claret and cheesy screaming. It’s  a generally-triumphant return to the sort of eerie, wintry, fireside tale of ghostly doings once popularised by the likes of M.R. James. Brrrrr….

It’s 1921 and Britain is still shivering from the after-effects of the Great War. In London the slightly-stuffy  Florence Cathcart (Hall) is waging her own war, this time against chancers and fraudsters out to make a quick buck from the recently-bereaved at fake séances. But even she is intrigued by an invite from Robert Mallory (West), history teacher (and war invalid) at a bleak and remote Cumbrian boarding school blighted by a ghost whose presence, it’s suggested, has recently caused the death of a young pupil. Florence sets off to debunk this myth and at first it looks as if she does her job with her typical flair when she finds a rational explanation in the form of one particularly terrified and lonely boy who just wanted to make friends (awww!!) but, as the school empties for the half-term holiday, Florence finds herself alone with just Mallory, the school’s Matron (Staunton) and an odd little boy called Tom (Hempstead-Wright) for company in the big, draughty, rather grubby old school. Florence is tempted to return to London but there’s something about the school which won’t quite let her go just yet…

A co-production with BBC Films, ‘The Awakening’ just oozes class and period detail and the film looks absolutely stunning (courtesy of Director of Photography Edward Grau). It does, however, look a bit like a TV production - and that’s not necessarily a bad thing - and many of its themes and images recall the BBC’s own adaptation of ‘The Turning of the Screw’ screened at Christmas a couple of years ago. In fact, ‘The Awakening’ would sit pretty well in the BBC’s post-turkey schedule as, one tame sex scene aside, there’s nothing here likely to disturb or terrify. It does, however, manage to send the odd shiver spinewards as it reacquaints us with many old ghost story tropes; the hazy figure in the photograph, the creepy doll’s house, the creaking door; here even something as simple as a ball rolling lazily down a flight of stairs is capable of raising a goosebump or two.

The Awakening’ does a good job of setting up its mystery and establishing its supernatural credentials but the film almost falls apart in the last act as the ultimate explanation and rationale relies on such an enormous and fanciful plot twist (involving a major character’s beyond-unlikely loss of memory) that it requires a suspension of disbelief which would itself be supernatural to really make it work. Add to this a few plot holes and unexplained plot points (who can and can’t see our ghost exactly - and why?) and we’ve got a film which seems to think that just being old-fashioned will do the trick when it really needed a script with a bit more subtlety and clarity. Full marks, though, for a double-bluff ending which will lead you in one direction before taking you in another, the one you probably didn’t see coming.

Despite its frustrating flaws, ‘The Awakening’ is a refreshing change of pace for horror cinema, a welcome return to core values. Hall, perfect as the sniffy, repressed Cathcart, is well-supported by the ever-impressive West and always-reliable Staunton and while the film will remind you of ‘The Others’ and ‘The Orphanage’ in places even if it probably won’t be as memorable as either, it’s a taut and intelligent horror thriller in its own right and a reminder to less-subtle filmmakers that you don’t always needs gallons of blood, grisly mutilations and decapitations to put the frighteners on an audience.

Expected rating: 6 out of 10

Actual rating:

The Awakening’ is manifesting itself in cinemas in the UK now.

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