The Awakening (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a teacher, invites Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), a published writer and a debunker of so-called paranormal phenomena, to visit a boarding school and investigate reported ghost sightings. The boys claim that they have seen a ghost of an unnamed murdered child. The collective fear of the place has escalated to a point where an asthmatic student was found dead just three days ago. Florence thinks that it is her duty to expose the “ghost sightings” for what it really is so that the children can go on about their lives. But as Florence gets deeper into the case, she starts to consider that maybe the answers lie outside the realm of possibility.
“The Awakening,” based on the screenplay by Stephen Volk and Nick Murphy, is so soaked in ambience, it requires little to no effort to believe that the story unfolding before our eyes is occurring around the time of the First World War where a lot of people are unable to deal with the loss of their loved ones so they find solace in the idea of spirits or ghosts. Although the picture remains fascinating past its halfway point, the payoff ultimately feels like a gimmick rather than a natural appendage of its human themes.
The film is most intriguing during the writer’s investigation. While petrified students attempt to sleep in a hall with full knowledge of what is going on outside the walls that protect them from the terrifying encounters, Florence runs up and down the winding stairs, enters and exits seemingly empty rooms, and looks into the nooks and crannies of the mansion. She is so busy trying to see something–anything–that when she overlooks a detail and we, the audience, do not, we want to scream at her to quickly turn around to check whatever is behind her or go back to another room and be more observant. It engages us in familiar creepy scare tactics but they are nonetheless well-executed so we are compelled and willing to invest as the mysteries are pried open.
I enjoyed the scenes of Florence being alone in a room as she grapples with her thoughts because they are allowed to play out and gather tension. Hall plays Florence with an air of intelligence so every time the camera focuses on our protagonist’s face, we consider how she might be interpreting the events happening around her that are becoming more difficult to explain with observation and science. Emphasis is placed on the looks that the characters give one another. Hall is able to emote with only using her eyes exceeding well. This adds another level to the mystery: what has she realized that she does not communicate outwardly to those around her?
The twists in the final third of the picture are confusing and do not hold much weight. The flashbacks feel like they come from screenplays that are not only poorly written but also so typical that they are sure to inspire some groans. Surely there are better options than to pull the rug from underneath us and then force us to guess what is real and what isn’t. It is very disappointing that a consistently engaging material is shaken suddenly where we are left to reorient ourselves until the last shot instead of giving us the opportunity to focus on exploring or thinking about its more subtle layers.
Directed by Nick Murphy, “The Awakening” has gloom oozing out of its every pore. It offers an old-fashioned ghost story with many of its plot elements in place but it is unfortunate that its third act feels like a contrivance. The only reason I can think of as to why a detour is taken is due to the need to appeal to a broader audience.