It’s a rare instance when a ghost story transcends being merely a genre film, which is not to say that director Nick Murphy’s feature film debut doesn’t have all the tension and scares you may expect, but it creates a weightier setting for the horror than we normally get. The Awakening is just as much a film about the post-WWI period in which it’s set as it is about ghosts, putting it in the same general wheelhouse as movies like Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others and Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone though also possibly something we’re more likely to see on “Masterpiece Theatre” than we might at the local drive-in.
It’s 1921 and Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), author of “Seeing Through Ghosts” and London’s foremost expert on debunking paranormal hoaxes, attends a séance which ends abruptly as she calls the whole thing as a hoax and the police are called in to arrest those responsible. It’s somewhat worrying how much this opening mirrors the recent Red Lights, a movie that quickly went south and never recovered, but Hall’s character immediately feels like one of those classic Agatha Christie investigators ala Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, which immediately gives the film a very different feel.
After that prelude, Florence is called away to a boarding school well outside London to investigate the death of one of the kids tied to the school’s resident ghost, where she encounters everything from a creepy matron (played by Imelda Staunton) to an even creepier groundskeeper (Joseph Mawle). And what’s the deal with that kid who keeps glomming onto Florence or the giant dollhouse and why is there a rabbit-head doll that plays lullabies in French? There’s enough weird stuff going on that you might think you’re watching a James Wan movie, but we can’t get too far into what it all means without giving too much away.
Needless to say, The Awakening is one of those serious mindf*ck movies that keeps you off guard by building the tension and throwing the viewer for a number of loops.
Much of why any of it works can be credited directly to the performance by Rebecca Hall, who goes through an incredible transformation from the strong-willed woman we meet at the beginning to the woman who no longer has any idea what is real or not by the end. Layered over scenes of Florence looking for ghosts using all sorts of period contraptions is the pervasive theme of the first World War and its repercussions, most notably in Dominic West’s veteran-turned-teacher Robert Mallory, who plays a larger role than just being the obvious love interest for Florence.
The film is masterfully directed by Murphy, whose background making documentaries and historical dramas gives the film more weight and credence, but also offers enough genuinely creepy moments that those looking for more traditional genre fare won’t be disappointed either.
Unfortunately, having so many ideas ultimately hurts the movie because as we arrive at the film’s last act end game, things should become clearer, but you may already be so confounded by the different layers of information and imagery presented that having multiple twist endings doesn’t help matters. Up until that point, The Awakening is an effectively haunting film and Rebecca Hall’s performance is something that really sets it apart from other recent ghost story movies, but the ending may leave you more confused than thrilled.