Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Awakening

I heartily recommend this film. See it if you can. Some critics have been sniffy or dismissive - ignore them and see for yourself. Firstly, it's a very powerful and moving drama that happens to have a supernatural core. Secondly, it's well-acted, visually superb, and genuinely surprising.

The central premise - as you can see from the trailer - is a simple one. After the Great War and the influenza epidemic killed millions, there was an upsurge in Spiritualism. Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is a tenacious debunker of false mediums, hauntings and all things spooky - indeed, by her strictly rationalistic definition, all mediums are false and all ghosts must be hoaxes. And she's got the trip-wire cameras, differential thermometers and EM field detectors to prove it.

The action begins with a good recreation of a seance and shows just how astute Florence is. Enter a history teacher (Dominic West), inviting the brilliant Miss Cathcart to a boarding school in the wilds of Cumbria where, he claims, the boys are being terrorised by a ghost. Indeed, one boy has died... The matron of the school (Imelda Staunton, no less) is a great admirer of Miss Cathcart's books - perhaps she could help?

This is, I suppose, an example of what academics call 'heritage cinema' - the period detail is wonderful, it's set in a big posh house, and of course we get a steam train, vintage cars and all the trappings of the inter-war years. It's not surprising to see BBC Films on the credits. But it is not Downton Abbey with spooks. This is a story of lonely, scarred people who live in fear and pain. Every major character is haunted by more than ghosts, and eventually Florence is compelled to face a truth about herself which is more disturbing than anything the next world can offer. The title is a clue to the revelation, but I suspect few will guess the truth.

As the film works logically - albeit very deviously - towards its conclusion, there are plenty of tributes to other haunted house movies, and indeed to literary ghost stories. At times you can almost hear writer Stephen Volk chuckling to himself as he throws in a hint of this, a bit of that. The overall mood is somewhere between The Orphanage and The Innocents, with a touch of Robert Aickman. But the Awakening stands on its own merits - a ghost story that makes you jump, certainly, but also moves you in more subtle ways.


Anonymous said...

I had never heard of this movie until I cam across it in your blog. Thanks. While I doubt it'll ever reach the local theater here (as it doesn't seem to have explosions, crude humor, or is perhaps because it's not a sequel), I put it into my netflix cue.

Forgot that Stephen Volk wrote Gothic. What a wonderfully wild film.

valdemar said...

It's certainly less wild than Gothic, but has that authentic 'haunted house' feel, plus enough ideas to keep any fan of the genre happy. I also think it will satisfy people who are not 'into' ghost stories but like absorbing, character-driven drama.