The Awakening – Blu-ray/DVD Review

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Set in 1921 England The Awakening is a ghost story chiller starring Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton. The film opens to a seance filled with all the customary claptrap:  dark lighting, bizarre symbols, an overabundance of candles, a run down almost decaying room, and creepy looking characters wrapped in shawls that wouldn’t stand out in a crowd of zombies. Cue a little bit of ritual sacrifice and these supernatural pedlars have their show fully underway, summoning spirits from the ‘other side’, the tension builds as the ghost of a girl appears as a reflection and then bam it’s grabbed by Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) and revealed for the farcical charade that it is – designed to grotesquely manipulate the weak, grieving, post World War one public’s need for contact with those lost.

The Awakening’s protagonist, Cathcart, is a renowned disapprover of the spiritual and she spends her time using science and reason to reveal the shallow artifice of events such as the opening seance. To try and dethrone her from her carefully constructed seat of reason school master Robert Mallory (Dominic West) arrives to summon her to what is purported to be a ‘real’ ghost, haunting his boarding school. He regales her with a tale of frightened children and a persistent ghost child backed up by a set of class photographs each with an additional stereotypically blurred face, one that usually signifies that the individual has recently watched a certain ominous video tape. Not one to back down from a challenge and armed with an antiquated Ghostbuster kit she returns with Mallory to the boarding school determined to disprove his story, and naturally this is where all the darkly lit corridors, tense music, and eccentric ‘bump in the night’ sounds we would expect begin.

A good ghost story is usually one where very little happens (in an action sense) as it is in that expectation of something that tension and therefore fear happen. The Awakening, rather like the recent Woman in Black, is an attempt to return to this classical horror vehicle – as opposed to the blood and guts gore-fest approach that is more frequently employed these days. In someways it is successful, it slowly builds in tension with simple scenes that often isolate the main character in empty spaces or surround her with darkness. The scenes are carefully constructed with peculiar elements appearing in backgrounds or in the periphery to create worry or anxiety in the viewer. There’s a reference early on to a Caravaggio painting on the wall, and the movie clearly references the dramatic contrast of light that the artist so frequently used, with some scenes being lit entirely by Cathcart’s personal torch. This all works to create a very claustrophobic atmosphere and there are certainly a couple of moments that will make you jump – there is a particularly marvellous scene involving a dollhouse that was genuinely spooky, if not slightly distressing. It’s also nice that the chills aren’t confined to the dark of night with a great deal of the ghostly goings on taking place in the, usually safe, daylight.



But then, in counterbalance to the good, there’s a parade of the vapid cliches that are usually rife in ghost stories; like hands reaching out through water, shadows and reflections on glass, the closing of a door to reveal a figure stood behind it, and looking through a hole to be abruptly confronted with someone else watching back, that it all becomes a bit trite and predictable. Moreover there’s the ghost itself which works well when it’s lurking in the background or is otherwise disembodied but there are scenes where a tedious pale CGI ‘horror’ face (the aforementioned video tape face from The Ring) rushes into shot and it’s just a bit too obvious and at odds with the slow and simple build up elsewhere in the movie.

Also the story begins to get overly convoluted, rather like The Others, it starts to add a more complicated backstory involving Maud (Imelda Staunton) and whilst there’s something inherently creepy about both a primly dressed boarding school governess and Imelda Staunton as an actress, it all begins to detract from the tension and fear factor. The movie also muddies the water with a love story development between Cathcart and Mallory which given her characters troubled, slightly vulnerable nature seems more that a bit unnecessary. Cathcart, whilst having made a career from disproving ghosts and over worldly beings, we find out is really just searching for proof of their existence – she wants to believe. What starts out as a fairly subtle, well thought out movie becomes very heavy handed by the end, as we’re taken through Cathcart’s realisation of lost memories and her need to reconcile the past.

Unfortunately, the final scene ends with rather infuriating ambiguity as to the fate of the main character(s) and rather than being a twist calling into question our assumptions about the story it just comes across as being unfinished, or rather that the writers simply didn’t know how they wanted to end it. All in all The Awakening is by no means a terrible movie, it’s very deliberately and beautifully framed and for at least the first half it builds mystery and tension very well, but then it gets bogged down in a succession of overly complex or entirely superfluous ‘twisty’ plot strands. Watch it for Rebecca Hall’s well rounded portrayal of a person stuck between the scientific and spiritual worlds, but don’t expect too much from the ending.


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