A ghost story that is traditional, beautiful and 'hair-raisingly horrific'. Not to be missed – or watched alone
It is obvious from the start that The Awakening is going to be a chilling watch. Haunting piano music and breathy close-ups introduce us to our heroine, Florence Cathcart, played by Rebecca Hall, a no-nonsense, trouser-wearing, flat-shoe clad writer. Cathcart helps police uncover fraudulent mediums, who are cashing in on grief-stricken families hoping to make contact with their loved ones.
Set just after the First World War, it is a 'time of ghosts', with a nation struggling to accept the deaths of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Cathcart has written the book Seeing Through Ghosts and she dismisses the idea of phantoms as delusional claptrap. It is this that makes schoolteacher Robert Mallory (handsomely played by The Wire's Dominic West), to seek Cathcart out, following some spooky goings-on at a boarding school.
Beautifully filmed in blue and grey tones, adding to the iciness of the atmosphere, Cathcart arrives at the boarding school, deep in the countryside. She is greeted by the matron, Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton), whom Mallory describes as an 'odd fish', then meets a motley crew of other characters including an unsettling groundsman, a domineering teacher, and a seemingly ineffectual headmaster.
The schoolboys are terrified by sightings of a young boy with a twisted face. One pupil has already died. Cathcart doesn't want the boys to live in fear. She starts her investigation, determined to prove that ghosts are a figment of the imagination. It's all very Agatha Christie with a bit of added chill.
During Cathcart's initial examination, we begin to learn what drives her. She is mourning the loss of a man she loved, a soldier, who died in the war. Mallory too, is an army man, scarred both physically and mentally, letting survivor-guilt engulf his day-to-day existence.
Cathcart arrives at a slightly clichéd and prosaic answer to the riddle quickly, and in what should have been a more sinister scene. Don't worry, though, because from this point on, things get decidely blood-curdling.
Rebecca Hall exudes an ethereal beauty as the plot develops, at times looking much younger than her 29 years. It's perfect casting, and as the character unravels, Hall emotes just the appropriate level of fear. Yet she never lapses into extravagant or over-the-top dramatics. Meanwhile, West delivers a beautifully understated performance as the troubled schoolteacher, and Staunton is predictably brilliant as the Matron.
Director Nick Murphy keeps the action steady, and there are plenty of jump-out-of-your-seat moments, as is to be expected with the genre. What is most surprising about the film, however, is the occasions when there are sustained levels of horror, which makes it almost unbearable to watch.
The Awakening is not a modern horror flick, rather an old-fashioned spooky tale, but at least one scene in this film more than matches any contemporary film in terms of pure unadulterated terror. it is hair-raisingly frightful, quite literally.
Hugely reminiscent of The Others starring Nicole Kidman, The Awakening will satisfy fans of traditional ghost mysteries, with enough goings-on to keep the audience guessing throughout.
There is a subplot of sorts involving the creepy groundsman Judd, which, thankfully, doesn’t detract from the main action. The final denouement is slightly disappointing after such a terrifically handled build-up. However, this brief lapse in pace and atmosphere is a small quibble. If you like ghost stories, go see this (but don’t walk home alone).
The Awakening runs at the Queen's Film Theatre from November 11 – 24.