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At The Picture Show
September 2012

The Awakening

Boys will be ghosts

Rebecca Hall carries the moody, textured ghost story 'The Awakening' all the way through its faulty finale

The Awakening
Cohen Media Group
Director: Nick Murphy
Screenplay: Stephen Volk and Nick Murphy
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Shaun Dooley and John Shrapnel
Rated R / 1 hour, 47 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

It's a trademark of an unfortunate number of good horror films that they can't quite stick the landing. They do such a good job building - the atmosphere, the dread, the music, the sly hints that only further obscure our fleeting glances of the truth - that the act of explaining things seems like an almost inevitable letdown. It's too sudden a gear shift - from suggesting to telling.

I guess my problem is in the way these movies force themselves to explain every intricate detail, to put things into focus when being vague was working so well. Explanation is rarely as tantalizing as mystery, especially when the very nature of the mystery is, in and of itself, a mystery. That's the kind of uncertain terrain so often explored in horror, and Nick Murphy's The Awakening is that kind of horror film.

Taking place in England in the shadow of World War I, the film is centered around a paranormal investigator and author whose years of experience have made her a definitive non-believer. But as we watch Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), we get the feeling she's exhausted herself after years of searching and finding nothing. She makes a living exposing hoaxes and con artists, but seems to take no joy in doing so.

She is called upon to visit a boys' boarding school that's either been the victim of a genuine ghostly encounter, or an elaborate prank. She's recruited by the dour but kind-hearted Robert Malory (Dominic West, or McNulty from The Wire), a teacher at the school and a veteran of the war, whose suppressed sadness is matched only by Florence's own.

Robert confesses to not being much of a fan of her work - too much certainty, he insists - but it's quite a different story for the housekeeper Maud (Imelda Staunton), who has read all of Florence's writings multiple times over. You could describe her as doting.

The school has been visited of late by the apparition of a young child, and the boys - one of whom has recently been killed under mysterious circumstances - have been scared stiff. The ghost story and the mystery surrounding the student's death are inevitably related, of course, but not necessarily in the way we expect. And what I liked was how the film shifts into different territory, allowing certain seemingly important pieces of plot to disappear while maintaining the focus on the four key characters - Florence, Robert, Maud and a shy young boy named Tom (Isaac Hempstead Wright, or Bran from Game of Thrones). Oh, and there's also an ominous groundskeeper lurking about. I'm sure he won't come into play late in the movie.

I was reminded a bit of Shutter Island, in the way the central plot hook slips away and the story shifts in focus to a central character descending into unknown mysteries. In other ways the film seems like a combination of The Orphanage and The Shining - the former for the setting (the faded color palette, the overcast exteriors) and the female protagonists' combination of strength and vulnerability; and the latter for the way the two films slide into a more surreal realm, gradually tilting the psychological and temporal playing field. We begin to suspect we're not seeing the movie we thought we were, and we may not be in quite the place we thought we were, either.

I was hoping director Nick Murphy would keep things going in that direction, keep leading us further onto uncertain ground, where we're not sure what way we're headed. Instead, the film veers back into conventional ghost-story territory, complete with labored explanations and flashbacks. (As a counterpoint, consider how The Shining both explains itself and manages to still not make any real - or at least fully literal - sense.)

The details that justify the third-act reveals are dropped into earlier dialogue carefully and effectively, but the fact remains, the story loses its urgency once everything is set on the table. Murphy just can't resist the urge to put a bow on it.

All this detracts from what makes the rest of The Awakening so good - Murphy's command of the frame, making such good use of minimal information (there's hardly an extraneous detail in sight), and the performance of Rebecca Hall, who anchors every moment with her soulfulness and quiet aching.

To be completely fair, though I found the ending disappointing, it's not altogether bad, in that the rest of the film doesn't unravel in hindsight, and it doesn't cheat too much to get where it's going. (A little bit, sure, but you could do worse.) The end is fine, I suppose - but blame Murphy for making the previous 90 minutes so good. If not for that, I may have found the conclusion more satisfying.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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