We’ve seen everything in The Awakening before. In movies like The Others, or more recently even, The Woman in Black. This means that, at times, The Awakening is a bit boring, and sometimes even tedious. But that’s not to say it’s not without its charms.
Although Awakening is a ghost story, it is also a detective story. Sherlock Holmes investigates the supernatural as a dedicated disbeliever, and as a woman. This woman is Florence Cathcart. In what is surely one of the film’s greatest virtues, Cathcart is played by Rebecca Hall of Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Her performance is strong and assured. She’s written a book(!) and is educated at Cambridge(!) despite the year being 1921. Her search to disprove the existence of anything supernatural is a way to self flagellate in penance for breaking the heart of a soldier she loved before he was killed in battle.
Indeed, the air seems to be thick with ghosts, as a nation’s population ravaged by war seek the comfort of charlatans and soothsayers that promise a connection between this world and the other. Cathcart is invited by boys’ school history teacher, Robert Mallory (Dominic West) to investigate the death of student that seems to be being blamed by the presence of another boy ghost who once died there. The scene is then set a palatial country estate, placed in all the blues, gray and fog that the English country side has to offer, vacant of students who have left for Christmas break.
The setting seems all too familiar, and it’s true. This is a ghost story we’ve seen many times. Perhaps you won’t guess what the twist ending will be, but you’re sure there is one, and watching Awakening becomes a waiting game, waiting to find out what all the seemingly unconnected and ambiguous clues will lead up to.
Some elements of the production seemed forced, this includes a chemistry-less tryst between Cathcart and Mallory. And the presence of an unseemly, and creepy groundskeeper unfortunately is present. There’s even a vague attempt at connecting sexuality with the supernatural–one of Cathcart’s first intense exchanges with what may be a ghost happens during a moment of self-exploration in a steamy bathtub.
While Hall’s impressive performance carries much of the film, there are other facets to appreciate. Eduard Grau’s cinematography is quiet breathtaking. The lush, but lonely shots of the surrounding grounds, the intimate long-shots of a cold hallways, and empty rooms that lead to more empty rooms, it’s eerie, and beautiful, and otherworldly. West’s run as the stammering, self-loathing (he has survivor’s guilt) is believable, and it’s always pleasant to see Imelda Stauton in anything. Lastly, I’ll mention an appreciation for the film to embrace true macabre. While I enjoy films like The Others and The Woman in Black, it’s nice to see a ghost story film embrace an ‘R’ rating.