The Awakening

17 Nov

In the period between Halloween and Christmas, with the country in the icy grip of winter and the nights long and cold, there is nothing like a good scary ghost story to bring family and friends together around the hearth. One of my favourites in this particular film genre is 2001’s The Others, the sort of suspenseful chiller which doesn’t seem to come around too often, given the modern preference for out-and-out shocks and gore in horror movies. Probably the best recent example of a film in the mould of The Others is 2011’s The Awakening, starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West. In post-World War I England, an author and paranormal sceptic (Hall) is invited to a countryside boarding school by one of the teachers (West) to investigate rumours of an apparent haunting. But just when she thinks she has debunked the ghost theory, she has a chilling encounter which makes her question all her rational beliefs. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that there’s something very clever about a film that is subtle enough to scare and unsettle its audience by placing suspense, atmosphere, a gripping plot and a quality script and actors at its heart. As an added bonus, The Awakening also has one of those jaw-dropping twists at the end that make you question everything that you’ve just witnessed. If you enjoy films like The Sixth Sense, An American Haunting and The Woman in Black, you’ll probably need to make room on your DVD shelf for The Awakening.

In 1921, in London, the arrogant and sceptical Florence Cathcart is famous for exposing hoaxes and helping the police to arrest con artists. The stranger Robert Mallory tells her that the headmaster of a boarding school in Cumbria has invited her to travel there to investigate a ghost that is frightening the pupils to death (literally). He also tells her that many years ago there was a murder on the estate, which seems to somehow be connected both to the more recent death of one of the pupils and the school’s very own ‘ghost boy’, who appears mysteriously in photographs year after year. The ghostly sightings are at first thought to be a prank played by one of the boys at the school, until Florence discovers a rather more mundane explanation. Her job of exposing the ghost done, Florence prepares to return to London. Suddenly, with the school closed for half-term and its only occupants being Robert, Maud the housekeeper (Imelda Staunton) and a lonely child named Tom, another incident takes place which causes Florence to delay her departure. This is where the film really takes off and what follows is a creepy thrill-ride with enough shocks, twists and surprises to keep you at the edge of your seat until the very end.

Rarely does a horror film make the back of your neck tingle with the calibre of its performances as well as its jumps and jolts – but The Awakening (which seems to pay more than a nod in terms of its style and content to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw) provides chills of both kinds. Hall is a bewitching lead, ably assisted by a heavyweight supporting cast which includes Joseph Mawle as the sinister grounds keeper, Judd. In many ways The Awakening is plotted more like a mystery than a horror film, although it’s not short on shivery moments, which include a hackle-raising set piece involving a doll’s house and a coda much subtler than the simple twist ending it initially appears to be. The only jarring note for me was the obligatory, but rather contrived, romance between Florence and Robert – although admittedly even this serves a definite plot purpose. All in all an outstanding debut by first time feature film director Nick Murphy, and a solid addition to the recent welcome craze for haunted-house films in the vein of The Haunting.

2 Responses to “The Awakening”

  1. Sandra November 17, 2013 at 2:25 am #

    Totally agree. I enjoyed this movie immensely. It was chilling in an old fashioned suspenseful type of way.

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