Finally bringing the traditional ghost story back to its spiritual home after several years sunning itself on the Iberian Peninsula, The Awakening is undoubtedly going to elicit comparisons with Spain’s recent contributions to the genre. All perfectly understandable, as it’s a field that Spain has rather dominated of late with such fare as El orfanato, Guillermo Del Toro’s El espinazo del Diablo and Amenábar’s English language debut The Others.
The film-makers would no doubt prefer to have their work referenced alongside Jack Gold’s classic The Innocents. But it is actually Lewis Gilbert’s rather overlooked mid-nineties offering Haunted that the film most resembles, both in its basic premise and in its dénouement which requires the audience to re-evaluate all that has gone before.
It is 1921 and England is still reeling from trauma of the Great War. With a generation lost in the trenches spiritualism has become profligate, preying on the vulnerable families of the dead. Florence Cathcart is a debunker of the supernatural engaged by schoolteacher and wounded veteran, Robert Mallory, to investigate a supposed haunting at an isolated preparatory school for boys. It isn’t long before Florence’s scepticism starts to crumble when faced with events she can neither control nor explain.
Stunningly photographed with a desaturated colour palette that renders the film almost monochrome at times, The Awakening conjures up a strong sense of foreboding throughout, making excellent use of the locations, although the stately home used here never totally convinces as a boarding school. Even less so when all but one of the boys are packed off leaving said child, a handful of staff and a ghost hunter – and a ghost (or maybe not).
While it never delivers any really big scares, the film does insinuate itself with a series of imaginatively handled set-pieces.The opening séance is wonderfully realised, as are the school photographs which feature one child too many and a creepy doll’s house which appears to be the school in minature.
There are strong performances all round. While the character of Florence does come across as a little too modern at times, Rebecca Hall handles herself well as someone who isn’t quite the steady pair of hands we imagine her to be at the start. In fact all the main characters are in some way affected by past traumas. Dominic West excels as the emotionally and physically damaged Mallory. Imelda Staunton could probably play the rôle of the housekeeper, Maud, in her sleep – not really a criticism, as the part might have been written for her. It’s only the rôle of the surly caretaker Judd which feels a little under-baked here. This leaves the usually impressive Joseph Mawle with very little to do other than look miserable. In fact Mawle’s character seems to be present to fulfil one rather unpleasant task alone. Even the contentious – contrived, some would say – twist ending feels better handled than Judd’s relevance to the narrative. Although this final revelation still raises as many questions as it attempts to answer, albeit nothing that can be mentioned here without recourse to spoilers.
While zombie flicks continue to arrive en masse, ghost stories like this are wont to manifest quietly for the briefest of times before fading away. The Awakening probably isn’t quite the rare beast it might once have been – the release of The Woman in Black coming hot on its heels – but it is still a beautifully crafted work, relying more on psychological chills than cheap shock tactics.
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