Those who feel that the modern horror genre has become glutted with "torture porn" Saw knock-offs, home invasion "thrill killer" gorefests and miscellaneous, misbegotten remakes of older classics, have had reason to cheer up of late. Recent hits like The Conjuring are tapping in to that narrow but rich vein of more restrained, subtle terror that some might deem old-fashioned (and the rest of us, classy.). A few enterprising filmmakers, generally funded by smaller, independent production companies, are coming out with films made in this classical style, with horrors more implied than overt, constructed with a bit of that old school intelligence and grace. One of these is The Awakening, a refreshingly traditional British ghost story of the type they rarely make anymore. Reminiscent of such wonderfully eerie films like The Innocents, The Haunting (the Robert Wise version, natch), Legend of Hell House and The Changeling, The Awakening makes for fine seasonal viewing.
Set in 1921, when the extreme losses suffered during the First World War were still keenly felt, The Awakening centers around occult expert and spiritualist hoax debunker Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), who's gained some notoriety from a book she's published about her experiences dealing with supposedly supernatural phenomena. The movie opens with Florence attending a seance and swiftly exposing it, and the medium in charge, as frauds...to the gratitude of the police but the hostility of a bereaved couple whose hopes she's shattered. Worn out by her investigations and overwork, Florence returns to the London home she shares with her parents, reflecting on her own deep personal loss, of a fiancee pilot shot down in the war, when she's visited by Robert Mallory (a brooding and very effective Dominic West), who teaches at a boys' boarding school in Rookford, Cumbria. Mallory tells a chilling tale of a recent death of a young boy at the school, and shows Florence several school photos depicting the ghostly figure of a child, its face obscured.
Florence initially has no interest in pursuing the case but something in Mallory's curt, challenging manner and sincere appeal for help for his pupils sways her from her apathy, and before long she's making the long journey to the school, where she promptly unpacks the tools of the ghost hunter's trade and sets down to work (these scenes were particularly fun for me; as a big fan of "occult detective" fiction, I find this sort of messing around with flash camera traps, alarms and other period gizmos highly interesting). Florence's arrival coincides with the end of term, and in short order she is one of only a skeleton crew left at the huge, forbidding old school, along with Mallory, the housekeeper, Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton), Maud's rather isolated, ignored son, Tom (Isaac Hempstead Wright), and the surly groundskeeper, Edward Judd (Joseph Mawle). Florence finds herself increasingly attracted to Mallory, who is haunted by his own personal ghosts, of all the dead friends he left behind on the battlefield. But far more disconcerting for her are a series of bizarre, genuine supernatural events which not only threaten to derail her entire world view, but also seem to have designs on her life...
The Awakening is a meticulously-crafted, atmospheric piece of work, with an interesting and literate script from fiction writer Stephen Volk and Nick Murphy (who also directed, with an effective balance of deliberate, slowly escalating tension and a number of nerve-jangling, "jump" shock moments). The acting is impeccable and the production sumptuous, despite what was certainly a low budget. The filmmakers get great mileage out of their locations (most of the exteriors were actually filmed in Scotland). The school building itself is a palpable, menacing presence, and adds immeasurably to the film's overall impact.
The movie deals sensitively with the themes of loss and tragedy, and strongly communicates the sense of melancholy and emptiness felt in the initial years after the war, when Britain was still reeling from its incredible, massive death toll. If ultimately the final reveal proves more cathartic and emotional than out-and-out frightening, it still feels satisfying, and the inevitable "twist" honestly earned. Despite its classical stylings and old-school approach, the film more than delivers on the "hide behind your pillow" scare scale, featuring as it does some truly skin-crawlingly creepy moments and jump out of your chair shocks along the way (watch out for that mini doll house version of the school that Florence crosses paths with a few hair-raising times!). Especially effective is an early setpiece in which we see the oh-so-calm, professional skeptic Florence get steadily rattled and disoriented on her first night in the school. Rebecca Hall features in nearly every scene in the movie and gives a very skillful, nuanced and increasingly raw performance, peeling away Florence's layers of emotional armor until she gradually grows more and more vulnerable, confused and lost as her rational, ordered world slips into chaos.
The only real flaws I'd care to mention are a late plot development, involving the rather abrupt actions of a certain supporting character which seem to come out of the blue and feel born more of contrivance to move the plot forward rather than allow it to develop naturally, as it had up to that point; also, some may find Florence just a wee bit too "modern" in her thinking and approach to be 100% true to her time period. However, these are minor carps and shouldn't seriously mar anyone's enjoyment. The Awakening is gripping, chilling stuff and fits nicely in the small but worthy pantheon of superior "haunted house" movies.
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