Had its screenplay been conceived as sharply as its set decor, the British drama “The Awakening” might have been a splendid thriller delivering, on one level, efficient haunted house entertainment and, more deeply, a stirring exploration of our need to believe in ghosts.
Instead, the film is watchable but unextraordinary. Its terrific lead performance keeps things vital, but its credibility-impaired story lets us down.
In his feature film debut, director Nick Murphy, writing with Stephen Volk, has crafted a hybrid detective drama and haunted house chiller dotted with psychosocial period detail.
The setting is a misty and melancholy 1921 British landscape thick with postwar grief. Rebecca Hall plays Florence Cathcart, a trousers-clad woman of science whose fiance died in the war. Florence specializes in exposing fake “spiritualists” who prey on those shattered by loss.
Ghost deniers in movies like these invariably get shockarooed by paranormal happenings, of course, and for Florence, the title condition begins when she arrives at a boys’ boarding school, invited by instructor Robert Mallory (Dominic West).
Florence has come to investigate reports of a deadly specter, and she initially deems the alleged apparition — a childlike figure with blurred facial features — a prank. But as she scours the house for clues, the spookiness intensifies and no rational explanation emerges.
Friendly matron Maud (Imelda Staunton), lonely schoolboy Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and a scary dollhouse also figure into the mix of grief, ghosts and secrets.
Murphy seems to be aiming for something both enjoyable and insightful, and things start promisingly. A seance sequence in which Florence demonstrates her mettle is escapist fun, and the bump-in-the-night ingredients pack the requisite jolts.
The presentation of postwar suffering, depicted via the survivor’s guilt of Florence and war-injured Mallory, provides a distinctive period component.
The set design, while suggesting the stamp of an ambitious art department rather than the pileup of history, intrigues.
Unfortunately, however, the movie doesn’t go very deep when in serious mode and collapses into convolutions and cliches as the ghost story progresses. It offers little we haven’t seen in fare such as “The Orphanage” or “The Devil’s Backbone.” The denouement, which involves (what else?) a childhood trauma, is trite.
Still, we don’t bail, and the performances are largely why. The immensely likable Hall radiates an intelligence that Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with, convincing us that Florence is as formidable as she is tormented and that she deserves our attention as she navigates even the silliest plot threads.
West, despite playing a character who is basically a personification of war trauma, also is stellar.