PLOT: A skeptic who has devoted her life to exposing fraudulent paranormal activity finds herself in the middle of a supernatural mystery at a boarding school in 1921 London.
REVIEW: A great man once spoke about the middle ground between science and superstition, and it's impossible not to think of those haunting words while watching THE AWAKENING, an eerie early 20th Century tale of ghostly happenings at an all-boys boarding school. Truth be told, the film, from Nick Murphy making his feature debut, treads similar territory as last month's RED LIGHTS - but far more successfully, thanks to its convincing period detail, rich atmosphere and a couple of sterling lead performances.
Film kicks off on an amusing note; Florence Cathcart (the luminous Rebecca Hall) attends a creepy séance in post-WWI London, only to immediately see through it and call bullshit on the ruse's perpetrators. Seems Ms. Cathcart is something of a turn of the century ghost hunter, or more precisely, a ghost debunker. The author of a popular book, “Seeing Through Ghosts,” Florence is often called to homes or businesses that are supposedly haunted, where she'll quickly uncover either a reasonable explanation or a tangible culprit. She seems almost too intellectual a woman to have such an unorthodox occupation, but her personal stake in the afterlife is legitimate: her fiance died in the war, an event made all the more unbearable due to the messy final chapter of their relationship.
She's soon faced with an unexplainable mystery: a young student has died at an all-boys boarding school, evidently related to an apparition the boys have been spotting in the school's musty halls. Florence is unable to turn down the offer made to her, especially as it comes from a troubled fellow named Robert (Dominic West), one of the school's teachers whose own depressed memories of the war have given him survivor's guilt not dissimilar to Florence's.
Florence eventually settles into Rookford School (a huge manor and former private residence), where she sets up a nifty bevy of instruments to track any supposed ghost activity (think antiquated versions of motion-detectors, night vision cameras and the like) and goes about investigating the case, which at first appears to be leading to a rational conclusion... until, of course, “rational” ceases to apply, and the presence of some kind of spirit is irrefutable.
The second half of the movie is classic gothic ghost story stuff; it will certainly be compared to other historical supernatural efforts like THE OTHERS and THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE, and while it may not quite achieve the strong chills those movies provide, it works steadily to give off a moody, subtly unsettling atmosphere. Nicely nuanced, THE AWAKENING doesn't feel the need to bash your eardrums in with jolts of sound like most paranormal movies do (though it does have one or two good ones), preferring hushed sequences of investigation and the unfolding of the strange conundrum at hand, to draw you in.
The very effective leads are crucial to the film's success. Rebecca Hall completely immerses herself in the role of Florence, her stoic exterior masking the character's inner sadness and neurosis. The longer Florence resides in the manor, the more that exterior gets chipped away, and Hall keeps us rooting for the character's sanity to stay intact. West too displays an intense vulnerability as the afflicted Robert, a weary veteran who finds himself somewhat helpless in the face of this strange situation.
The supporting players are also very strong; Imelda Staunton (whom the kids nowadays will recognize as the hateful Ms. Umbridge in the HARRY POTTER films) plays the school's housekeeper Maud, who carries with her an air of worry and dread, as if she knows what's really going on. Newcomer Isaac Hempstead-Wright is extremely good as the young Tom, a precocious student who attempts to help Florence in her explorations.
THE AWAKENING's resolution isn't quite as successful as the earlier passages; you're asked to accept an explanation that is fairly iffy in the believability department, but because the ambience of the film has been so effective, and the ensemble so persuasive, the so-so denouement far from ruins the experience.