Writer-director Nick Murphy’s first feature film, The Awakening, is a bold step into the well-trodden genre of horror. Thankfully, Murphy has mixed supernatural intrigue with historical fact to bolster his story’s significance, adopting an old-fashioned ghost-hunting theme to its investigative concept, without relying on modern-day effects for big scares.
Set in 1921 England, there is an overwhelming sense of loss and grief after World War I, with many people missing, and others succumbing to Spanish Flu. As a result, many tricksters hold hoax séances to appease and fleece the grieving. Sceptic investigator and authoress Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) makes it her mission to expose the hoaxers. She is visited by boarding school teacher Robert Mallory (Dominic West) and invited to his school to explain the sightings of a child ghost, thought to be responsible for the death of a student. Reluctantly, Florence takes on the job, but everything she believes in begins to unravel as odd things begin to happen to her, personally.
Murphy has produced a mind-bending and foreboding suspense thriller full of intriguing dead ends and plausible accounts, much like The Others or The Shining. It addition, we get to marvel at the strange scientific gadgets used by Florence to explain the paranormal, all enhanced within Eduard Grau’s exquisite cinematography that adopts a palette to suit the time period and the moment, as well as a moving and hauntingly melancholic score.
Murphy submerges you in the looming and frosty presence of the school building, instantly producing a sense of apprehension for the findings of the investigation ahead and building the tension for the old-fashioned scares. But it is the quintessentially British cast of Hall, West and Imelda Staunton as the mysterious school matron that completes the vintage picture, and keeps the search for answers fresh and alive.
Like some yesteryear Miss Marple, stunning Hall is highly watchable in every frame as the ‘beauty with brains’ and sharp wit, driving our curiosity onwards. This is possibly Hall’s finest and assured performance yet. Like the school she and the others inhabit, there is also a great sense of grief that keeps things sombre and distressing and fuels the ghostly premise Murphy has created. Hall is assisted by West and Staunton who give the same polish performances you would expect, resulting in a dynamic trio at play.
However, what begins as an engaging and intrepid scientific investigation that reveals the true nature of the era’s grief becomes muddied in the end, with Murphy’s insistence on keeping the unexplained supernatural aspect alive, rather than allowing Florence’s logical answers to come to the fore. There is simply an inconsistency that clashes with Murphy’s commendable efforts in developing his dogmatic lead character beforehand. There are also some back-story moments that feel lacking in explanation, too, possibly as too many factors are introduced that begin unravelling the story’s focus on finding the culprit.
That said The Awakening emerges you in a nostalgic and elegant time when existences were built on stories and folklore and there was still a sense of the great unknown that fuelled exploration and human desires to learn. Murphy captures this beautifully, while addressing the aftermath of emotional trauma in such a way that even the most steadfast ghost sceptics will appreciate.