Who’s haunting who?: A critical review of “The Awakening” (2011)

What are ghosts anyway? Horror, as a genre, has all sorts of answers, ranging from the traditional–spirits of the deceased–to the psychological–manifestations of guilt–to the Scooby Doo–it was the bank guard; it was always the bank guard. Starting off with a quote noting that, between World War I and the Spanish influenza epidemic, the first decades of the 20th century were a time for ghosts, writer-director Nick Murphy’s very BBC-looking film “The Awakening” seems to be taking a different approach, hinting that ghosts are not merely cultural or individual, but inextricably connected to the human zeitgeist.

Naw, I’m kidding. The movie’s about scary ghost children.

OK, it’s a little more complex than that.

The movie is actually about Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall, “The Gift”), a modern woman between the wars who smokes, wears pants and sits on the arm of the couch. She’s also a ghost hunter, or rather, a ghost debunker, as is evident in the first scene where she torpedoes a dubious seance. So it is with some trepidation that she takes on the case brought to her Robert Mallory (Dominic West, “The Wire”), who works at a school for boys outside of London, I will assume having little to no knowledge of the British countryside. Mallory explains that the school was once a private home, and one of the previous residents–a dead boy–has been seen by some of his students. One of them has been frightened to death. So Cathcart packs up her ghost debunking gear and heads out, only she will find more than she bargained for–although the viewer might be less surprised.

At least you will enjoy the ride visually. Murphy dots his cinematic landscape with reflected images and curious close ups, giving the film the sense of introspection. This is utterly fitting. In the end, this film is far more moody than it is scary (the chilly cinematography by Eduard Grau, who worked with Tom Ford on “A Single Man,” gives everyone touch of ill health). There are also a couple of jump scares–some work and some don’t. Oddly enough, it is when the film isn’t trying as hard to be “horror” that it works best. The sudden faces filling the screen aren’t nearly as effective as tension mounting in different rooms of the house while a boy silently smacks a ping pong ball against a wall.

In a way, this is a film about architecture and landscape. The film’s strongest asset is easily its set. The house grounds are well teased out and presented, and the building itself is huge, drafty and hollow, and fits well into both the movie’s atmosphere and its mystery. In fact, if anything, it could be developed more, as it only becomes a “character” during the movie’s climactic reveal. And the weakest asset? The soundtrack, a Gothic string of orchestral cliches.

It’s a better idea to focus on the actors. The supporting cast is great. Imelda Staunton is solid as a silent matron, Joseph Mawle is game as a creepy groundskeeper and Shaun Dooley is very good as a shadowy teacher–it’s a role that would have easy to overdo, but Dooley gives it an impressive sensitivity. However, the film is far more interested in giving screen time to its leads. Luckily for us, they are very attractive, both as actors and…well, it’s Rebecca Hall and Dominic West. They’re handsome people. The attraction that develops between them in the film is very organic, due as much to the script as to Hall and West’s natural charisma.

At the end of the day, this film feels like a piece of classic British ghost literature–perhaps too classic for some. One assumes the writing team knows what they’re doing. Murphy is a veteran of both American and English TV, and his co-writer Stephen Volk’s filmography certainly seems to contain a lot of horror. Still, the script is occasionally a bit too on the nose, and it contains too many endings for its own good, but it’s usually fine, albeit predictable. And every now and again, it’s suddenly smart. One set piece in particular, a large doll house, sticks out. I don’t want to say too much more. Suffice to say that the title is very much psychological. “Awakening” feels a bit like Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Others,” not only in atmosphere, but also in its conflation of the fear of the supernatural and the horrors of war (in this case, World War I). “Awakening” doesn’t beat around the bush either–ghosts mean trauma, and everyone here is haunted.

“The Awakening” is not quite your standard horror film. Some viewers might be impressed by a strong female lead and her nuanced male co-star, both equally capable yet vulnerable; others might be bored by what is, admittedly, a familiar affair; as for myself, I’m just a sucker for a handsomely photographed haunted house story.

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