Nick Murphy’s The Awakening gets off on the right foot, blending greying horror visuals with a strong protagonist to craft an absorbing set of possibilities. But Murphy and Stephen Volk’s screenplay steers things so entirely askew for the last third that the goodwill of this 2011 British movie is driven into the ditch.
Cinematographer Eduard Grau arranges his shots carefully. Sometimes, the lens hides behind objects or sees characters through the curves and bends of different fixtures. This underlines the notion that something or someone is always watching. It’s not gimmicky or pointlessly showy, either.
Rebecca Hall stars as author and supernatural hoax debunker Florence Cathcart. It’s 1920s-era England, just a couple years removed from the heights of the H1N1 influenza pandemic. Cathcart is visited by Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a teacher from a boarding school. He claims that the students have been seeing a ghost after the death of a child named Walter.
Cathcart reluctantly checks out the school and sets up her equipment in hopes of catching the individual she believes is tricking the students. Maud (Imelda Staunton), the matron, is a big fan of the educated woman and she serves as her guide of sorts. Soon, weird events start to pile up and Cathcart isn’t sure what to make of what she sees.
The Awakening starts off with a fascinating sequence in which Cathcart is in fine form debunking a wonky séance. She calls in the bobbies on a group of charlatans and heads home, where her lonesomeness takes over. It’s possible this loneliness, the result of a muddy history, is what drives her to investigate the boarding school against her better judgement.
The cast of characters is the stuff of British period pieces. There’s a brutal teacher (Shaun Dooley) and a shadowy groundskeeper (Joseph Mawle), plus a lonely student named Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) who’s the only boy to stay at the school during the holidays.
But Hall is the real star. Cathcart is a character of depth and strength, for the most part. She runs toward potential danger and not away from it. She bursts through doors and turns lights on, a characteristic uncommon in most horror heroines. She is a sophisticated atheist without a need for the afterlife. Sort of.
There are some surprises about Cathcart’s past that somewhat undermine her many strengths, but Hall plays past them with a devoted performance. It’s not enough to stop the rush of nonsense that inhabits the film’s third act, unfortunately.
To say Murphy loses control of The Awakening when the fur starts to fly is an understatement. The ghastly apparitions are revealed without an ounce of refinement, while the number of false bottoms proves overwhelming. There’s a disruptive amount of exposition and explanation, as the willingness to rationalize the “twist(s)” takes an absurdly patent route.
By the time everyone lays their proverbial cards on the table, The Awakening is a mess of clichés. Despite how well Hall handles the turns, questions about the status of certain characters remain the focal point and any emotional or spiritual currency has been long spent. It’s too bad, as the devil really is in the details.