A fantastic cast heads this equally brilliant ghost story set in post-World War I England.
Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is a woman seemingly out of place. As an ‘educated’ female, she is viewed by many with suspicion, especially since she is childless and (Shock! Horror!) wears trousers. She specialises in exposing spiritualist hoaxes that were prevalent in the early 20th century. The Awakening suggests that in the post-war years those who had lost family members were looking for meaning and quick to cling to crackpot theories espoused by mediums in communication with the spirit world. When Robert Mallory (Dominic West) employs Florence to solve a case of haunting at the boarding school where he works, Florence finds that she is out of her depth and may indeed be witnessing actual ghosts.
Florence is a superb creation. Seeing her in action with all of her scientific paraphernalia – some realistic and, no doubt, some fictional – whilst everyone around her stares with a mixture of curiosity, admiration and distrust is awesome. A strong-willed woman with firm convictions, she is nonetheless plagued by her own hidden insecurities and fears, something which come to the fore as the story plays out. The sense that England is still recovering from the War hangs over the entire film, and this is one of the themes that sets it apart from your average ghost story. The entire nation is haunted by recent events, so it’s easy to understand why they would be whipped up into a frenzy by the merest whiff of supernatural goings on.
The period trappings, from the locations and the sets to the costuming and post-production effects, are perfect. I had expected the film to have a fairly skimpy budget – how hard can it be to simply find an old English mansion and film it? – but The Awakening feels like a big budget horror film. (The budget was reportedly 3 million pounds, though it looks ten times that much onscreen.) Being a ghost story, many of the scares rely on shadows and barely-glimpsed figures, but occasionally we get some CGI effects, to varying degrees of success. This is a film made by people that know how to shoot horror, however: the direction, pacing and editing are all exemplary.
Hall is perfect in the lead role. She succeeds at striking a very tricky balance: Florence is a devout non-believer, yet we need her to be scared at various points throughout the narrative, otherwise the film simply wouldn’t work. She does this with aplomb, ably assisted by the wonderful Dominic West. Though he may always be the brash and reckless McNulty from ‘The Wire’ to many people, he portrays Robert as someone clearly still reeling from the horrors of the Great War, both psychologically and physically scarred and sporting a slight stutter. Imelda Staunton plays the school’s housekeeper, Maud, whilst Isaac Hempstead Wright (now famous for his role as Bran in ‘Game of Thrones’) is one of the more sullen students.
Whilst not particularly innovative, The Awakening is a great ghost story and a must for horror fans. Subtle without being sluggish, it boasts many tense moments, and even once or twice allows itself to become gloriously silly (but in a good way). If you enjoyed the likes of The Others and The Eclipse, then this film is for you. Central to the success of the film is Hall’s performance, and I’d love to see more investigations of Florence Cathcart. It isn’t an obvious candidate for a sequel, but I’d lap up any further entries featuring this proto-feminist spiritual debunker.
The Awakening is available on Blu-ray and DVD now from Madman.Rating: