Directed by: Nick Murphy; Runtime: 107 minutes
The paranormal mystery genre, whether it'd like to or not, trains moviegoers to recall those among its ranks that they've seen, and to decipher the mysteries lurking in the dusty, decrepit corners of eerie environments before they happen. Now, the only way the formula can work lies in the material's willingness to push boundaries beyond the foreseeable, or, perhaps, with execution so confident that those watching simply forget they've endured this nerve-testing experience before. In the midst of cracked, emotionless gray walls and ominous lighting in post-Victorian England, Nick Murphy's The Awakening aims for confident execution of familiar spook tactics and twists over innovation. Yet, it also shapes those on-edge characters navigating an empty British boarding school -- especially the role given to the talented Rebecca Hall -- into unique presences by exploring their psychological state, the reasons they are the way they are. While not altogether successful, with drabness fogging more than its atmosphere through BBC-heavy mannerisms, it's a eerie little supernatural drama in which old-fashion directives supersede its familiarity.
Interestingly, The Awakening touches on similar ideas to Rodrigo Cortés Red Lights (both released in close succession), about a stony, tormented ghost debunker confronted with a situation that demands reevaluation of their beliefs -- and rethinking their fear of the unexplainable. Director Murphy's film, which handles that material in a more absorbing analog environment, takes us back to early-1900s, post-WWI England, where author-detective Florence Cathcart (Hall) answers a call to a boys' boarding school to investigate a death believed to be caused by a ghost. Cathcart, regarded as a sensible but astute pro who assists local police with quashing fraud, navigates the mansion-turned-school with relatively lo-fi tools: space thermometers, atmosphere barometers, trip-wire cameras and bells. Her sharpest tool is her analytical capability, the ability to see a charade, as well as how she can shut out panic in somewhat alarming situations; she's met, however, with questions about the eerie happenings that don't add up by her scientific standards.
The screenplay, written by Murphy and Stephen Volk, diverts little from standard haunted-house fare in its plot: Florence is persuaded to journey out to the countryside, through curiosity and emotional provocation from a weathered war veteran-turned-teacher, Robert (Dominic West), to pull the curtain back on the ethereal figure that appears in a series of class photographs. Once she's there, the mood gradually rises as she coyly moves about the spacious, rigid school environment, complete with a persnickety housekeeper (Imelda Staunton) and a rifle-toting groundskeeper (Joseph Mawle) who shoots shifty glances in her direction, creating a sense of unease around the typically steely-nerved hoax-killer. These are old, rusty devices with obvious purposes, somewhere between a mystery novel and a campfire tale, yet even the aged creakiness of their familiarity casts a faint spell of foreboding as the camera follows Florence between stuffy rooms. Director Murphy doesn't camouflage the familiarity either, instead embracing scenes of scolded children and voyeuristic snooping through cracked walls.
Eventually, the gloomy daytime sequences surrender to the darkness of night, allowing The Awakening's bucolic corridor-to-corridor tension to mount through unsurprising but well-telegraphed trembles of measured atmosphere. Standard accoutrements of the genre are present and accounted for; violins begs for hairs to rise, creaks and clicks of wood echo in vast darkness, and a dollhouse eerily mirrors the onlookers in the stillness of night. The film's artful cinematography, full of lamp-lighting and worn walls that underscore the school's age, dresses these sequences in a curiosity that the daylight moments could've benefitted from, where that dreary-gray staleness dampens the impact that could've furthered enlivened Florence's exploration of those shadowy extremities. Granted, those base sensory jolts driven by ghostly faces do succeed when the film needs a tingle, while those that populate the school -- troubled boys and adults alike -- are viewed suspiciously by our skeptic afterwards. While the likes of The Woman in Black and The Others easily edge it out in aggression and atmosphere, there's something to admire in its restraint.
The Awakening's most compelling trait can be found in the progression of Florence's grip on her fear, and how Rebecca Hall lets the calculated, stalwart character weaken. She stalks the school at first as a truth-seeker whose unshakable resolve allows her to conquer shadows, someone who simply doesn't believe in things that go bump in the night. With lamp light bathing her thin frame, she effortlessly bolsters the persona of a science-minded atheist; however, as Florence laments the death of her soldier husband and gets lost in some of the building's unanswerable questions, she crumbles under the weight. Hall's performance emboldens the pensive moments of psychological defeat and longing for affection -- the stillness of a bath; the sensation of a hand on her shoulder; the feeling of being watched -- which attempt to interact with the eeriness of ghosts, be it literal or figurative, that populate the school's byzantine architecture. Her chemistry with the remainder of the cast stays at arm's length, aside from Robert, but that's largely by design.
Alas, naturally, an entry in this genre can't seem to escape the obligation for a grand perspective-shifting twist -- or twists -- nowadays, to liven its intrigue and encourage repeat viewings. The Awakening is no exception: in the midst of spinning barometers and shifts in temperature, details unravel in a weighty connection-of-dots that, despite being largely similar to others of its ilk, fights through implausibility towards a convincing catharsis for Florence. Whether Hall's performance is responsible for that or not I can't be certain, but her fraught presence becomes crucial as the film descends. Are Murphy and Volk's array of curtain-pulls successful in their endeavors? Only partly; there's a point where invigorating shifts in observation bleed into the realm of personal interpretation with what exactly happened on the school's grounds, as well as unnecessary grand guignol undertones that don't do the film any favors by attempting to one-up its contemporaries. Though, I do dig the subtlety behind paying attention to something like a passed cigarette as a focal point for 11th-hour interpretation.
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