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Nick Murphy’s THE AWAKENING is a ghost story.
Now, I suspect that for many, this phrase alone carries many
preconceived notions. No doubt for some, the annual dose of surveillance-camera
shocks have lessened the effect of what was once not merely a source of primal
jolts from what was invading our lives…but a solemn meditation on what might be
missing from them.
THE AWAKENING, which opens today in its native Britain, is
set in 1921—a post-WWI England wherein many of the bereaved and wounded have
sought solace in spiritualism. Haunted by the death of her fiancé in the Great
War, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) only believes in the truth, and has
consequently become committed to rationally and methodically debunking any such
supernatural claims. Yet when she is contacted by Robert Mallory (Dominic
West), the schoolmaster of the Rookwood country boarding school, regarding a
spectre that is quite literally frightening the children to death, Florence is
compelled to take the assignment.
Once at Rookwood, Florence sets to work, gathering evidence
and setting traps to try and reveal any potential schoolboy prankster. And yet,
just as she is about to leave, content that her work is done, Florence has a
chilling encounter that shakes her reason and emotions to the very core. The
children are sent home for Christmas, but Florence is determined to stay on at
the house and solve the mystery. She is not left alone, however; three others
remain with her: Maud (Imelda Staunton), the matron whose initial request
brought Florence to the school; Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), a young child
whose parents are unable to care for him over the festive break; and Mallory,
who, having recently returned from the war himself, finds himself plagued by
visions of his service.
Now, that’s as much as I really want to tell you, but
suffice to say: Those looking for “YouTube generation”-horror-style stingers
should almost certainly look elsewhere. However, those seeking the complexity
and sensitivity of Alejandro Amenábar’s THE OTHERS or indeed Jack Clayton’s THE
INNOCENTS would do well to look here. This is supernatural drama at its very
best. There are nods to the jump-scare phantoms of recent years, but tellingly,
even these are presented as such with a purpose, beyond mere easy fright
tactics. The film is laden with red herrings, the narrative playing and
rejoicing within the form like a rich, emotional detective story wherein every
thread has reason and a payoff—a rare thing indeed.
So many films that label themselves as ghost stories—that
is, stories that purportedly question our response to the afterlife and its
existence—tend to be very manipulative affairs: We are constantly told what to
feel and when, being shoehorned into getting scared. THE AWAKENING is a very
different animal—less William Castle, more M.R. James—wherein the tension
builds slowly, and as it does so the ghosts do not merely pop out of boxes as
bogeymen, but are rather woven into the filigrees of the narrative as fragments
of the past, and as—perhaps more importantly—characters.
For beyond all the supernatural trappings, this is finely
acted drama of the first degree, sensitive in its portrayal of an irreparably
damaged nation and a childhood scarred by violence. In fact, it’s worth noting
here that although Murphy (who scripted THE AWAKENING with Stephen Volk) won a
BAFTA Award for his UK TV drama THE OCCUPATION and a wealth of young fans for
his work on the hit show PRIMEVAL, for a first feature this is an incredibly
assured piece of directing.
While it’s a celebration of the “classic” ghost tale, THE
AWAKENING is also an examination of the form’s resonance, and how a haunting
can be perceived to be a manifestation of
damage or a flaw in a character’s personality projected upon an
environment. In this sense, as much as the 1920s setting and additional period
resonance can be attributed to Murphy’s tweaking (Volk’s original setting was a
girls’ school in Victorian England), Volk’s writing still shines through here.
THE AWAKENING is absolutely a continuation of his previous work (GOTHIC,
GHOSTWATCH, AFTERLIFE)—obsessive examinations of why we need our ghosts, and an
exploration of the houses we’ve built to trap them.
Like I said…THE AWAKENING is a ghost story. A finely
written, finely acted, finely crafted ghost story, and quite possibly one of
the finest British films of recent years—but most assuredly one of the best
ghost stories of the decade.
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