The Awakening belongs to the same subgenre of supernatural thrillers as The Orphanage and The Others: Low-tech and compact ghost stories that rely on intelligent writing and well-crafted atmospherics to deliver their thrills.While not as existentially horrific as the former, or as gothic as the latter, The Awakening delivers substantive characters, several nerve-wracking sequences, and a twist ending with enough coherent connective tissue to the rest of the story to send you home satisfied.
The plot opens with Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) helping the London police bust up a ring of spiritual hucksters who claim to be able to connect people with lost loved ones. She’s the author of a book debunking the supernatural, and devotes her career to exposing such hoaxes as a kind of circa-1921 ghost hunter. The book has brought her some modest notoriety, as a rise in ad-hoc spiritualism has followed in the wake of World War One’s mass slaughter.
That notoriety brings Robert Mallory (Dominic West) to her door with the unsettling story of a murdered boy, and his ghost which haunts the boys’ boarding school where Mallory works. Cathcart agrees to take the case; and along with Mallory, the school’s head matriarch Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton) and the one boy left behind during the term break (Isaac Hempstead Wright, of Game of Thrones fame), they investigate the sprawling and depopulated estate.
Dominic West is effective as always in the refreshingly straightforward role of a decent man haunted by the deaths of his fellow soldiers in the war. But the real anchor here is Hall. Her beauty and appeal sneak up on you sideways, and she underlies the script’s dialogue with the sense of a woman calling upon considerable strength of intellect and character to hold back deep emotional damage. We learn early on that she lost both her parents in her youth, and then her fiancee to the trenches of WWI. She made a callous decision in their final correspondence which still leaves her guilt-ridden.
This simmering darkness turns Cathcart’s hoax-busting into a repetitive, quasi-religious expurgation — forcing herself to face again and again her irretrievable loss. Her devotion to science, and her equal contempt for both supernaturalism and traditional religion, functions as a kind of intellectual Nietzscheanism: Belief is weakness, and weakness must be purged. Like a monk turning to self-flagellation to rid himself of sexual hunger, she’s punishing herself for the sin of wanting to believe in contact beyond the grave. Of course, like the monk, it never quite works, and The Awakening’s plot revolves largely around the total breakdown of her worldview. This is not a film whose thematics Sam Harris would approve of.
So the script, ideas, and performances are solid enough. The director, Nick Murphy, doesn’t do anything terribly new with the visuals of the ghost story. But he knows how to make a movie look like a movie, as opposed to the television his worked in up until now. He creates some real suspense, makes good use of his setting (you can’t do much better than a grey and lonely British estate on the moors) and the sense of cascading collapses of reality that accompanies the second half is especially effective. The film also manages to stay just this side of predictable: Consistent with the current trends, it insists on indulging in a second climax, but takes it somewhere unexpected and unexpectedly moving. So not amazing cinema. But respectable, genre-based yeoman’s work.
In the end, The Awakening gently seems to suggest we human beings are not strong — we are weak. We can make use of science, but are not scientific creatures. Empirical knowledge holds intrigue and beauty for us, but no absolution. We need for gods, spirits and ghosts to walk beside us through the darkness, lest the truths that wait for us there find us alone and undefended.