Friday, 16 March 2012

Review : The Awakening (2011)



Nick Murphy
1921 England is overwhelmed by the loss and grief of World War I. Hoax exposer Florence Cathcart visits a boarding school to explain sightings of a child ghost. Everything she knew in unravels as the 'missing' begin to show themselves. 

From the opening moments, Nick Murphy's THE AWAKENING sets its stall as a refreshingly old school, ghost story; the likes of which we rarely see anymore. It has that quintessential M.R James feel that only comes from the shores of the UK, and even then, rarely works as effectively as it does here. While billed as a horror film, THE AWAKENING really doesn't feel like one. Supernatural? Yes. Period drama with Gothic overtones? Definitely. Theres little here by way of genuine fear, though. This is as gentle and subtle, (for the most part) as our genre gets, and that's no bad thing here.

The film evokes fond memories of classic Hammer Productions, with its lavish sets and gentile English manner. Its charming from the very first moments, and boasts some beautifully atmospheric music to help set the somewhat sombre tone that carries the film through. We open on a seance taking place in turn of the century London, and boy does it look the part. In fact, the scene is effectively frightening up until the reveal, where it cleverly and quickly turns it gaze onto our central character. What we have here is a study of grief, loss and guilt, masquerading as a horror story. And it works.

As our lead, Rebecca Hall brings complexity and quiet sadness to her role as a determined, driven woman who carries an emotional burden that weighs heavy on her soul. She's a woman looking for understanding. A seeker wearing the clothes of a skeptic. It becomes clear very early on that each hoax she exposes, represents yet another scar on her soul. She's battling disbelief, searching for illumination and running from some formidable demons of her own.

While the beautiful, refined Hall carries the lions share of the burden, the rest of the cast are very strong too. The kids who populate the school have some strikingly well delivered scenes, and the vastly underused, and always excellent Dominic West is perfect as the kindly, damaged war veteran. His role here is a million miles from the awesome bad-assery he displayed in CENTURION, and if his character is really little more than romantic foil on paper; he brings it to vivid life. It helps too, that the chemistry between our two leads is palpable, and that you actually give a shit about their fates.The icing on the cake is a pained and delicate performance by HARRY POTTER star Imelda Staunton, as the schools nanny/cook/maid. All good stuff. Its the interactions of these characters, and Rebecca Hall's spiritual plight that are truly the central conceit of the film, not the familiar ghost story she finds herself wrapped up in.
here are a few moments that may bring genuine chills, though. The supernatural elements are few and far between in the opening half, yet do ramp up a little by the time we reach the middle mark. All the usual suspects are correct and present, (faces in mirrors, children's laughter, blurred and half-perceived spooks), and its all very ably done. Those who spend a lot of time around horror will see almost every moment coming, and it may prove a little too gentle for the viewer looking for the fear, though it does work in the context of the movies tone. Anyone who's been lucky enough to view Del Toro's THE DEVILS BACKBONE, or his production of THE ORPHANAGE will have seen this ghost house done with far more darkness, and tension. Whereas THE ORPHANAGE scares us half to hell, and then broke our hearts int its tender finale, THE AWAKENING feels tender all the way through. Its simply not very scary, although there is one startling scene involving a miniature representation of the films boarding school location, that struck me as genuinely original and creepy as hell. Its the standout scene in terms of horror, and the film would have benefited from more of these moments. Luckily the drama makes up for its shortcomings as a fright machine.

With its period setting, restrained performances and striking visuals, this feels like a the sort of high quality drama the BBC were once known for, many years ago. Think the BBC's televised version of THE WOMAN IN BLACK (1989), minus the soul-freezing terror, and you'll get the idea. Theres a great deal of strong storytelling going on here, and its all very engaging on its own terms. The atmospheric, (and very beautiful), 'haunted school' is simply a visual and ascetic bonus. This is all about character, and old fashioned storytelling, That the mystery behind the ghostly goings on is vaguely unsatisfying, it doesn't really hurt the piece, as its saved by the journeys its characters find themselves on. Theres real heart here, and some very touching, delicate and saddening moments for the more sensitive viewer to chew on, while the finale, where all the plot strands converge and the mysteries are revealed, still manages to be ambiguous, and leaves some lingering ideas and questions for the perceptive among us.

THE AWAKENING will surely divide horror fans as it feels aimed at a more mature, discerning audience whose tastes reach to Hammer, period drama and old school ghost stories. It's a very palatable change in pace from such hell-for-leather spook-house films such as INSIDIOUS, though, and recalls some of the finer moments of British television. With THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012) knocking them dead at the box-office, and THE AWAKENING DVD release riding hot on its heels, it looks like we may be seeing a change in the flavor of British horror; a turning back of the clocks, if you will. And I for one, wholly welcome it.

7 Haunted Dollhouses out of 10

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant film... loved it! I really enjoyed the review. You have a great sense of words :)