It’s taken almost a year since its original British release, but The Awakening is finally making a limited landing on North American shores. And as the Halloween horror season gears up, bringing a torrent of slashers, shakycam, and CGI, it’s nice to get a reminder of just how good an old-fashioned gothic chiller set in a creepy old house with things that go bump in the night can be.
It’s 1921 and Britain is just recovering from the back-to-back blows of the Great War and the Spanish Flu. Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is an educated woman who devotes her time to debunking spiritualists, most of whom are actually staging elaborate cons to swindle poor bereaved people. She’s even written a book — Seeing Through Ghosts — which has been very well received. And it’s this book that draws her into the film’s own ghost story.
A boys school out in the country used to be a private residence where there was, so rumor has it, a murder in the past; a young boy’s spirit is said to haunt the place to this day. But when one young boy is found dead — seemingly of fright — something must be done to calm everyone’s nerves so the rest of the students return after their mid-term break. The school matron, Maud (Imelda Staunton), is a fan of Florence’s book, and it is decided to send the history master, Robert (Dominic West), to enlist her aid. She sets to work, quickly allaying some fears, but soon the boys leave and the big old house is empty save for Florence, Robert, Maud, the creepy groundskeeper (Joseph Mawle), and one young boy, Tom, who cannot return to his parents for the break (Isaac Hempstead-Wright).
The film is shot in gorgeously desaturated greys with a hint of queasy green, which goes a long way towards setting the proper atmosphere. And it really is all about getting the atmosphere right; there are no CGI monsters to rely on, nor buckets of gore. The gothic novel turns on people and places haunted — metaphorically or literally — by their pasts, but recounting that past can only go so far without setting a tone that can draw an audience into it. Cheap, shaky cameras, framing tricks, and offscreen screams alone cannot chill, and director Nick Murphy knows that. He carefully, artfully carries us from solid shots at the outset to quicker, more frantic pacing as Florence’s resolve begins to break down.
Which brings us to the other side of the balance: the characters. Hall, West, and Staunton are all at their best here, and Hall’s performance in particular draws us into Florence’s own story and how it plays off this lonely house, haunted by pain, loss, and isolation.
Like all the best genre stories, The Awakening has something to say beyond its own boundaries. No matter how many ghosts Florence Cathcart and others like her might have dispelled, their world was undeniably haunted. Its crumbling empire aside, the home countries had been decimated by war and plague. Traumas that great cannot be easily dealt with; even if we manage to repress them they have a way of simmering under the surface until, eventually, they come back out.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.