It’s 1921, and one schoolboy’s already died of fright from seeing a ghost.

That’s why stunning investigator of hoax hauntings Florence Cathcart, played by Rebecca Hall, has been summoned from London to Rookwood, a boarding school in the country side in The Awakening.

From the get go, the film’s set design is elaborate and transports you to post-World War I England. The opening sequence is promising; Daniel Pemberton’s melancholic soundtrack builds suspense, and a dark of cloud of enigma quickly blankets the cinema. Florence, however, quickly dispels the mystery of a séance where a group is trying to summon the spirit of a child belonging to a grieving woman – it’s merely an elaborate illusion.

Boarding school teacher Robert Mallory, played by HBO drama series The Wire‘s Dominic West, urgently seeks Florence’s help as one of his charges has tragically died after apparently seeing a ghost.

Sparked by her furious disbelief in the supernatural, Florence accepts the job and quickly sets off to the boarding school, hoping to yet again prove the existence of ghosts fictitious. As the film unravels, the psychological depths of the protagonists are slowly uncovered – plenty of emotional baggage and elements from their past swamp every single character.

Upon reaching the school, Florence breaks out an array of gadgets – a infrared camera, a tripwire and even an electromagnetic monitor – the kind of stock equipment any self-respecting paranormal investigator totes about these days, but was probably rare 90 years ago. It’s beginning to look more like a Scooby Doo mystery than a horror flick.

Sadly, The Awakening starts to sag midway in terms of pace and excitement. The weak plot gets a little too melodramatic. Unnecessary screams and fright noises to scare the audience only delivers shallow chills with slight jolts that leave you more annoyed than afraid. It’s wise to watch this film with a little cynicism in you – numerous ghostly happenings render the screenplay more absurd as it develops.

Nonetheless, there are a handful of cleverly constructed jolting moments that will truly send chills racing down your spine. An innocent and intricate dollhouse mysteriously reappears throughout the boarding school, establishing a creepy and disturbing vibe. Scant glimpses of an apparition ensure your eyes are locked unto the silver screen, and you’ll be rewarded abundantly with fright for your unwavering attention.

Not only are horrifying moments present, there’re nuggets of thought provoking and emotional scenes scattered within, an example being Florence’s bittersweet victories when it comes to disproving ghostly myths. Her fiancé supposedly died in the war, so in proving that there are no such things as ghosts, she also destroys her hopes of ever contacting him again.

Known for her title role of Vicky Christina Barcelona across Scarlett Johansson, it seems inevitable that Hall’s striking performance fluctuating between stable scam-exposer and post-trauma ‘schizophrenic’ got her nominated as Best Actress of the 2011 British Independent Film Awards.

The chemistry between Florence and Robert is electrifying – the tension between them is clearly evident – but it seems her desire for passion surpasses his want for her, when her subconscious implores her to believe he is watching her in the bath, as she was him.

Imelda Staunton, the classic face of Umbridge in the Harry Potter series, played the part of Rookwood’s housekeeper Maud Hill convincingly. Her motherly ways are strong but gentle, and at first sight she might seem like an overt, old lady, but in truth, every single character in this film has a distressing secret burdening their hearts.

Thankfully, the ending of this film is twisted and hauntingly tragic. It also effectively ties up all loose ends and answers questions one might have after the complex midsection of the movie; the multiple layers melt together and leave your mind boggled. But unfortunately, some might say that this conclusion seems contrived and a ‘last resort’ by the producer to end the film as soon as possible.

Still, The Awakening delivers a true horror experience in the sense that it does not rely on gory bloodbaths or copious amounts of mangled bodies to shock you. That in itself is counter-cultural (in comparison to many of the horror films of recent years, like the torturous Saw franchise) and its understated British elegance certainly is commendable.


[Photos © 2011 – BBC Films]


Movie: The Awakening
Rating: 2.5/5
Opens: Apr 12
Duration: 107 mins
Language: English
Age Rating: NC-16 (Horror and Some Nudity)
Genre: Horror, Thriller

Director: Nick Murphy
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton