Directed By: Nick Murphy
“There’s no place on earth people understand loneliness better than here.”
The best ghost stories are ostensibly about the characters themselves who are haunted, not just a creepy building out in the middle of nowhere. The Devil’s Backbone and Pulse are as much about their characters mindsets as they are things going bump in the night. The Awakening follows in those footsteps and crafts a nice place for itself in the pantheon of ghost stories.
There’s a touch of M.R James to this, and would probably make a great double bill with The Woman in Black (Either version) if one were to be so inclined. The lovely Rebecca Hall plays Florence Cathcart who, in post World War 1 Britain, exposes fake psychics for the charlatans they are. She has her own personal reasons for doing this, which the film unfortunately spells out a little too much. It’s clear before it’s ever stated why she’d turn to that line of work but we’re afforded a scene where another character sits down and gives some exposition anyway. She’s then invited to a Boy’s School by Dominic West, who informs her that they’re very much haunted.
It’s funny how in these movies the ghost hunter sets up their expensive equipment. For something like Apartment 143 it was infared cameras and hi-tech machinery. In this one it’s bells and some bits of newspaper. It provides a little spin on a well worn scene, even if the scares end up being the same (There’s always something that triggers it). I appreciated the thought though.
It’s a deliberately low-key film, with Hall and West sharing some great chemistry together. It also helps that it’s a largely smart, adult, script. The title is referring to more than one thing. It’s referring to attitudes towards women in general at that time (Much is made of the fact that Hall is an educated woman), it’s referring to Hall’s (And women’s) burgeoning sexuality. There’s a scene in a bathtub that features some nudity, but isn’t there to titillate or arouse, but instead shed some light on what Hall is going through.
The low key scares are what the film does best. There’s a great scene that culminates in a dollhouse scare that features the best use of a dollhouse that I can remember. It’s just a great scare in general. It’s a movie that rewards patience, that prefers to build to its scares than just hammer you over the head with them. It’s also drowning in atmosphere. Aside from the opening sequence the rest of the film takes place at the school and it’s grounds. Like Session 9 we spend a lot of time getting to know the layout of the place before anything really happens so we know where everyone is when these things start to fall apart. But the surrounding woods and lake provide the viewer with some of that great classical ghost story imagery.
Sadly if there’s one place the film is let down its the ending. I don’t actually have a problem with the twist. I think it works well enough and the movie hasn’t tried cheating you. It’s that it ends on a completely unambiguous note, with the movie coming down firmly on one side of the argument when it would’ve been better served to perhaps play around with the audience a little more.
Still, it’s a small blemish on this sadly underseen and underappreciated movie.