I stumbled across this little gem today – and I’m very pleased that I did. If you like your ghost stories soundly grounded in the 20th century western tradition – think The Woman in Black, Turn of the Screw or The Others – then you will definitely like this.
There are a smattering of clichés here – and you can clearly see elements of those aforementioned stories, and many others, within it. There is the turn of the century setting, the effects of war/shell shock, lost children and hidden pasts, to name but a few.
But there is also something fresh about The Awakening. It takes a stab at being a coming-of-age tale for grown-ups, examining themes of sexuality, need, fear and avoidance.
We follow Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) a paranormal investigator/debunker (think of her as a turn of the century Derren Brown – and about as hated by psychics and their clients). She is approached by Robert Mallory (Dominic West) a school master who is seeking her help after the death of a pupil – supposedly as the result of a close encounter with the school’s resident spook. It’s made clear early on that Florence has demons of her own, as does war veteran Robert. At the school we meet the Matron, Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton) and the frightened community of school boys. The ghost, it is revealed, is a young boy with a disfigured face who appears to the boys and as a blurry outline on school photographs.
If I have one major criticism of this film it is that it spreads itself far too thin. Florence essentially has two back-story lines. It also attempts to broach (rather clumsily and unsympathetically) the subjects of war-guilt, post-traumatic stress, institutionalised bullying and the effect of loss upon families and especially mothers. The film attempts to create a sense of loneliness and isolation amongst the boys – which is never properly realised. It’s attempts to deal with the effects of war are likewise sketchy and unconvincing. Considering the film’s run time – over 100 mins – it’s disappointing that it ultimately feels a little shallow.
The scares don’t come thick and fast, but nor is there a sense of pervading uneasiness – as with The Others or Turn of the Screw. But this is a film with heart, it is trying to deal with big issues and has a good story to tell. The pace does slacken at a couple of points and the audience is left hanging as it seeks to re-establish direction. The story lacks an over-reaching arch, as I’ve said, it toys with many themes but never fully develops any of them.
The Awakening had the potential to be fantastic, but it loses focus and tries to juggle too many themes. It is disturbing at times and creates good tension, there is also some fantastic acting. Florence is a brilliant character, sympathetically portrayed by Rebecca Hall. She is determined and driven without being hard nosed, she is masculine in her approach without losing her femininity, she is vulnerable yet strong, intelligent yet sensitive. It’s always good to see a well written female character – and Florence is not the trembling victim-type. She is totally human – fallible and haunted, at times insensitive yet ultimately totally sympathetic. She doesn’t need to be rescued – instead she struggles to understand both the events that happen around her and her own need to investigate them.
Somehow, The Awakening also manages to avoid the trap of falling into the nauseating ‘learning to believe again’ happy-clappy-crap that infects so many ghost stories. Florence seeks evidence and what she finds does not challenge her approach to life – instead it helps to unlock it for her. The film explores the importance of seeing for ourselves – and part of that experience is the method through which we examine ourselves and the world.
In conclusion – this is a very good film, much of it has been done before but not quite in this way. The ending is poignant – if a little contrived, the acting is good, the scares somewhat predictable but well enacted. The overall product is well worth a look and it’s one of this films you will feel the need to watch again.