The Awakening


Written by Annabel Wigoder
07 Monday 07th November 2011

Despite the misleading presence of Potter stalwart Imelda Staunton, a boarding school larger than most of the Home Counties, and a carrot-haired boy with no friends and a vacuous expression, it turns out we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto, but rather some way into the debut feature by British TV director Nick Murphy, and a valiant attempt at putting a spin on the ole I-See-Dead-People sub-genre.

Set shortly after the end of the First World War, The Awakening conjures up an overcast, moody England with a similarly austere visual palette to that of Cary Fukanaga's Jane Eyre or Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur. A two-pronged attack by the war and influenza has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of British citizens, and the film opens with the not-implausible assertion that 'this is a time for ghosts'; a quote lifted from the pages of a fictional book by ghost hunter Florence Cathcart.

It's a premise which promises a world seething with unfulfilled desires and lives half-lived, ably illustrated by each of the central characters. Self-flagellating headmaster Mallory (Dominic West) runs haunted Rookwood School alongside bereaved housekeeper Maud (Imelda Staunton) and hires ultra-modern lady scientist Florence to debunk stories of a ghost before the parents make a break for the nearest catchment areas, or alternatively knuckle down in the back yard and teach them to count with rocks, Big Society style. A scary thought. 

Florence makes a living debunking ghosts in a masochistic attempt to alleviate the guilt she feels over breaking up with her soldier fiancée shortly before his death. She refuses to allow herself or others to believe in the return of the dead; hope is a key theme, perhaps explored most powerfully in an early scene where the mother of a dead girl, tricked into attending a séance, slaps Florence rather than thanking her for setting the record straight. This opening curveball bodes well for the progression of the narrative, yet the forthcoming drama is unpredictable in a manner which owes less to clever story engineering than a screenplay co-written by Murphy and horror writer Stephen Volk which turns out to be even more complicated than one of Jamie Oliver's 30 Minute Meals.

Murphy and Volk's attempt to create something more than simply a run-of-the-mill ghost story is to be applauded, and on one level they achieve this, using secondary characters and subplots to delve into an England imploding with grief and loss. It's a pity these larger themes never feel fully integrated into the central premise. The real threat in Murphy's story comes not from the dead but from the living. Florence narrowly avoids being brutally murdered at the hands of fairly irrelevant rapist Judd (now there's a phrase you don't hear every day) but isn't quite so lucky when Maud spikes her tea with poison in a last-ditch attempt to reunite lonely Tom with his childhood friend.

In retrospect, and somewhat curiously given Volk's credits (Afterlife, Ghostwatch) perhaps what The Awakening lacks most is those supernatural elements of fright and suspense so crucial to a successful ghost story. Murphy is undeniably adept at building tension. The camera doesn't linger on glimpses of children in dark corners, trusting us to spot the ghosts for ourselves, and there's a nail-biting sequence in which Florence finds herself drawn repeatedly to a dollhouse in an abandoned attic room, opening it to find an exact replica of Rookwood and a tiny mannequin of herself peering at that same match-box sized dollhouse.

There's also a lingering close-up of Florence masturbating in the bath underpinned by an unpleasant sense that her seemingly disembodied hands will, in fact, turn out to belong to someone else. Yet as the story unfolds we realise there's little malevolence at play, and consequently The Awakening - an ambitious and classy debut which overall Murphy can be proud of - lacks the sheer visceral flourish and nastiness of, say, Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage, which makes a not-dissimilar attempt to reinvent the ghost story without forgetting that the audience needs scares.

The Awakening is out in the UK on Friday 11th November 2011

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