"The Awakening" plays it safe as far as supernatural thrillers go, providing audiences with such reliable hallmarks as a melodramatic plot, an ending with several twists, and plenty in the way suspense and shocks. That it's unoriginal, there can be no question. Nevertheless, there's no denying the skill that went into it. It is, above all, an incredibly good-looking film; the atmosphere is one of perpetual gloom, the sun shrouded by gray clouds, the rooms of the old boarding house faded and decaying, the overall color scheme muted drearily. It mostly takes place in an isolated area of the English countryside, and in a fairly open field of dark gray grass and overgrown trees, a piece of old architecture juts into the sky menacingly. The only noticeable departure is that, in spite of the washed-out colors, much of the scenery is not concealed in shadows. That style is reserved only for a select number of scenes, most of which are featured in the final act.
Taking place in 1921, the story opens in London, where a woman named Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) has made it her life's mission to debunk claims of supernatural phenomena and expose so-called mediums and spiritualists. And before I go any further, no, this movie is not a retread of "Red Lights," which not only examined the debate between faith and reason in a much more ambiguous way but was also focused on psychic powers rather than paranormal activity. Florence presents herself as a committed skeptic, going so far as to write a book called "Seeing Through Ghosts." But as the film progresses and her defensive layers gradually peel away, it becomes obvious that her crusade is less about convincing the general public and more about convincing herself. Let it suffice to say that her reasons stem from emotions rather than by scientific curiosity.
One day, she's approached by Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a shellshocked World War I veteran who now teaches at a secluded all-boys boarding school outside the city. He wants her to investigate the recent death of one of the students, which ties into numerous reported sightings of a boy's ghost, the image of which has inexplicably shown up in group photos dating back to 1902. Florence's explanation of the boy's diffused image is logical enough, although she has yet to account for why the last photo, taken only weeks earlier, shows the boy looking out one of the building's windows. She initially refuses to involve herself, but in due time, she comes around. And so she travels with Robert to the boarding school, a bleak, borderline Dickensian world of strict regiment and harsh punishments. The teachers and staff skulk around, their eyes betraying fear, anger, and deep secrets. The boys stand around in constricting uniforms, their heads lowered guiltily.
Upon her arrival, Florence meets the housekeeper, who insists on being called Maud (Imelda Staunton). She's a right bundle of nerves, hovering around Florence with nothing but praise for her book and yet always seeming to know more than she's letting on. Always at Maud's side is a boy named Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), a lonely orphan who inexplicably turns to Florence for solace. She sets up a series of still cameras, wire trips, powder trays for tracking footprints, and various pieces of machinery that would have been considered the latest in technology in 1921 – assuming they existed at all, and you'll forgive me for having no interest in doing the research. It's all in an effort to prove to the boys that there is no ghost wandering the halls. But ... what if there really is a ghost? How else to explain the strange occurrences that keep happening, some of which are rather startling?
To make the story about something more than the possibility of a spirit haunting an old boarding school, the filmmakers work in a mutual attraction between Florence and Robert, one that inevitably turns physical. It begins with a moment that could have been directly lifted from an erotic drama; while preparing a room with booby traps, Florence discovers that a hole in the wall gives her a view of the bathroom, and lo and behold, Robert emerges naked from the bathtub and treats a gaping wound on his right thigh. I'm not convinced of this subplot's necessity, although I will say that I appreciated the effort to make the film a character study as well as a supernatural thriller. Dominic West, known for his villain roles, at last is given the chance to play a sympathetic character, one who is, in a sense, haunted by his own ghosts.
The final act, which is surprisingly sentimental, requires high suspension of disbelief in order to seem even somewhat plausible. Is that to be expected from a movie like this? I suppose so, although even ghost stories have their limits. Still, there's a definite emotional payoff, one that stems from a logical progression of the plot and appropriate development of the characters. And let it not be said that the art direction, set design, cinematography, and costumes aren't put to good use. This film comes only six months after the release of "The Woman in Black," another suspenseful, atmospheric ghost story made by Hammer Studios in the tradition of classic horror movies. I found it incredibly satisfying, in large part because of its sense of style. "The Awakening" isn't quite up to that level, but it certainly accomplishes what it set out to accomplish.
-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)
5 out of 6 found this helpful.
Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.