Originally published at X-Media Online
There’s an infant poltergeist on the loose in a boarding school. There’s been a death. And worst of all the posh parents are feeling disgruntled enough to contemplate complaining. Who you gonna call? If you’re the debut director of The Awakening Nick Murphy, it’s Rebecca Hall, for her first starring role as ghost buster Florence Cathcart.
A schoolboy’s death from what may or may not have been an unfortunate asthma attack is far too grave a matter for Dominic West’s battle scarred teacher Robert Mallory to convey via telephone, telegram or text however. Being a respectable 1920s gent he hotfoots it to London to beseech Miss Cathcart in person. Whilst reluctant to take the case, as these deductive geniuses always are, she of course accepts and accompanies Mr Mallory to mysteriously sinister rural Cumbria.
In many ways this is a traditional tale that plays out in typical surroundings. There’s a big house with a groaning staircase and rooms full of dusty echoes. There are a handful of characters that might be suspects or allies, each with a secret. There are also the standard back story elements which occasionally add emotional depth but mostly lose the film marks for being clunky, convoluted and cliché.
Indeed many critics have treated The Awakening firmly, claiming that it’s haunted by classics of the genre and ends up being an inexpert imitation, squandering its good points by succumbing to the modern trend of climactic twists. I’d argue these reviewers are looking at the film in the wrong way. There are far more positives than negatives on show from a production that cannot easily be categorised despite its familiar trappings.
Besides being a chiller about a haunted house, The Awakening is also a lovingly drawn period drama, complete with grandeur and detail and an
arresting atmosphere. It addresses serious themes with surprising depth,
touching on tough topics such as shell shock, scepticism of the supernatural,
love and loss. As a result there are passages of dialogue rich in emotional and
intellectual meat for the actors to devour. Perhaps the most pleasing strength
of The Awakening is the sight of Hall and West excelling on centre stage, just
as they have always done in supporting roles.
The Awakening begins as a unique superhero story, with Cathcart unmasking charlatans and battling demons, both society’s and her own, at breakneck speed. Its concluding twist, whilst a little disappointing, works far better than most critics have suggested and does not spoil a good film. Spooky, intelligent and gripping, The Awakening is fine storytelling, inspired, not haunted, by horror classics. And yes I was scared. Out of my seat at times.
My rating: 4 stars out of 5