Film Review: The Awakening (2011)

“This is a time for ghosts”

Released at the end of last year, The Awakening seemed to sink without trace a little. I’m not the best judge of things given how little time I end up with to see films, but I would have thought a film that starred Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton would be a surefire hit. In any case, its general spookiness and delving into the realm of the supernatural makes it a good fit for inclusion here.

Nick Murphy’s film is set in 1921, a shell-shocked England still learning how to recover from the devastating impact of the Great War. Rebecca Hall plays a rather witty anti-Yvette Fielding figure named Florence Cathcart, a very modern sceptic who is a published author on the debunking of supernatural hoaxes. After a great opening sequence in which a séance is exposed for the nonsense it really is, she is visited by Dominic West’s Robert Mallory, a schoolteacher who wants her to come and investigate some spooky goings-on at his isolated boarding school. Yet in finding trying to a rational answer, she uncovers a deeper, more personal mystery which is far from easily explained.

Neatly side-stepping the difficulties in making ghost stories genuinely scary, first-time film-maker Murphy has adroitly paired that strand with another, one of a psychological mystery thriller which, as it unfolds in parallel, develops into something rather chilling. There are few of the out-and-out scares but in in its place are some marvellously creepy moments that linger in the mind, like the doll’s house sequence, the way the titular ‘awakening’ is actually staged and the performance of Imelda Staunton’s Maud, the tightly buttoned housekeeper who with her son Tom are a constant presence in the investigations.

Hall is an actress whom I like a lot (no-one was more gutted than I at how constrained she ended up in her father’s Twelfth Night) and yet she’s someone who hasn’t quite engineered the big breakthrough one might have expected. In some ways, that is in our favour as it means she is free to make the more interesting career choices that she has done so far. And she anchors this film beautifully, the slow unravelling of her composure is achingly well done, undone both by the events around her but also by the burgeoning sexual chemistry with West’s history master, the pair of them recognising the shared guilt of surviving a war that hit them so personally and clinging to each other.

There’s the tiniest of contributions from particular favourite around these parts – Lucy Cohu – but it is a powerfully moving one, allowing her to do the type of emoting that I love best and she’s accompanied by Cal Macaninch, who made a remarkable impact as Hook in the NTS’ Peter Pan. John Shrapnel, Richard Durden and Joseph Mawle also pop up effectively, but the film really is carried by its three leading stars and a noteworthy debut from Isaac Hempstead Wright as the haunted young Tom. A recommended watch.

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