I love a good ghost story. Unlike any other genre, they seem to be able to create a mood within a particular type of space and do something wonderful with it. A great ghost story leaves you breathless. The Awakening (2011) is half of a great ghost story. The other half is pretty banal. But what is good is really good. The film seems to have left very little mark in the minds of moviegoers at the time and has been completely forgotten by everybody these few years later. Cohen Media Group is giving it a good Blu-ray release and it is well worth checking out.
It begins with a seance. All the hallmarks of a spooky story are there – the circular table with nervous-looking people sitting around it, mementos from the recently departed, plenty of candles to help with the mood, etc. A hush falls over the group and someone begins speaking to the dead. The candles flicker; the table thumps. And old lady looks into a reflective glass and sees the ghostly image of a boy.
Smash, boom, bam. The curtains are drawn back, light fills the room, and there is Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) demonstrating to all that the whole thing is a hoax. The year is 1921 and she exposes fraudulent spiritualists. She’s written a book about her experiences and tours all of England ready to prove there are no such things as ghosts, spirits, or even God himself.
She thrills in the moment of uncovering the fraud, but it takes its toll. She smiles and struts in public, but once she gets home, she crashes and cries. As we’ll find out, she has her own secrets. Soon after the seance crashing, a man shows up at her house. He is Robert Mallory (Dominic West) and he teaches at a private boarding school for boys. He shows her a series of photographs in which a ghastly boy appears. He says a child recently died on the school ground and now others are seeing his ghost roam the corridors. She is unimpressed and dismisses him. In the next scene, the two are in the car together driving towards the school. I liked how we all knew she was going to wind up there with him and that the film doesn’t waste our time coming up with some reason why she should. She just goes after her little protests.
The school is filled with the type of characters this sort of film is always populated with. There is Malcolm McNair (Shaun Dooley), a sickly teacher who seems to delight in slashing the children at the slightest of provocations. Matron Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton) is stern but ever so kind. Groundskeeper Edward Judd (Joseph Mawle) skulks around the premises looking sinister and guilty. Mallory is kind, but plagued by ghosts of his own, of the ones he lost while fighting in the trenches of World War I.
After viewing the grounds and the seemingly endless number of rooms (most of them creakily empty), Florence sets up her traps. There are strings strung over entrances with bells on them, cameras set up to snap at the first sign of movement, and newspapers strewn on the floor with powder covering them to help track the footprints of little boys pretending to be ghosts.
Soon enough they capture the culprit, but there is something more. There’s always something more. But first, all the boys, save one – little Tom HIll (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) whose parents are overseas in India, go home for the holidays. What’s left is a series of scenes we’ve seen all too man times before. Its conclusion is worst than most. There are jump scares, secret passageways, creepy corridors, things that lurk in the shadows, and strange noises. There are images of boys just out of focus at the edge of the frame. We learn some backstories to the characters and secrets are revealed. It isn’t so much bad as it has been seen before.
What makes the film worth your time is the mood and setting. The boy’s school is one of those grand old English houses that has seen better days. Think of Downton Abbey if the servants left a decade prior. It is full of endless rooms, most of which are bare, run-down, and dirty. There are secret chambers, spaces between the walls, and a little sneak-a-peak into the washrooms. Director Nick Murphy loves moving his camera around these corridors creating an atmosphere in which we and the characters constantly feel disoriented. Somewhere inside is a little toy house that looks like the real house and inside our figures that look like the real people. Every time Florence looks inside, they’ve been moved to act out recent real-life scenes that no one else could have seen. “Creepy” is the word. The lighting and music are all evocative and gives us that ghost movie feeling in spades.
There is a great sense of loss within all of the characters. The spectre of World War I permeates everywhere. A title card also notes that Britain lost a great many to an influenza epidemic. Mallory especially is haunted by the fact that he survived while so many of his friends did not.
Rebecca Hall demonstrates once again she’s one of the finest actors of her generation bringing a depth to Florence that is sometimes lacking in the script. I always enjoy seeing Dominic West in anything and Imelda Staunton is delightful as always.
In the end, if you can look past a plot that does nothing new with the genre, then the actual filmmaking is a thing of beauty.
Extras on this Blu-ray include deleted scenes with an introduction from Nick Murphy, an interview with the director, and several featurettes on the making of the film.