The Awakening is a ghost movie that mostly relies on loud noises, unexpected movements and cheap thrills to get you where it wants you. So, not really that scary if you just plug one ear, which is actually how I watch most scary movies, one ear plugged against loud noises. I always hold out hope that whatever movie I am in is going to be the scary movie that changes my mind, that uses psychology and builds tension through visuals without resorting to loud bumps in the night, but The Awakening doesn’t bother, instead going straight for the cochlea, full steam ahead.
The film, set in 1921, opens with a dire reminder that between 1914 and 1919, over a million people died of Influenza, so, you know, ghosts. Setting a ghost story in such a war-torn and disease filled era is appropriate and interesting, and in fact most of the people in the film seem to be haunted in one way or another. They will tell each other this and say it out loud and muse upon it gently, so don’t worry if subtext isn’t your forte, subtext isn’t The Awakening’s forte either so there’s no fear of being lost along the way.
The gang’s all here from the headstrong, educated, cigarette smoking, ghost-hunting, pants-wearing young woman Florence (Rebecca Hall), who must explore the ghostly occurrences at a remote and lonely boy’s school, to the sexy and mysterious war hero teacher (Dominic West), the creepy janitor type (Joseph Mawle), the vacant and bizarre head matron (Imelda Staunton) and so on. There’s been a few deaths at the school possibly linked to a ghost sighting, everyone is spooked and the boys aren’t learning their Latin. Florence believes in science and smirking and photography and patronizing glances. She isn’t taken in by the scary stories and sets to work disproving the whole affair. There are a few frightening unexplained occurrences, and Florence begins to unravel as she also begins to experience very bizarre and specific phenomena. As the boys leave for a short break, will our young heroine overcome superstition and Nancy Drew this situation before anyone else dies? Does that make Jimmy McNulty George, and Dolores Umbridge as Beth? Maybe the ghost, if he exists, is Ned?
It’s so hard to do a ghost story right anymore, in between a suspicious audience who wants to stay ten steps ahead of any twist or scares, and an over saturation of movies like Paranormal Activity which push the scares so far that it seems as if there’s no room for a good old fashioned The Others anymore. The groaning old house, which watchful people who also watched Pride and Prejudice a million times when they were younger will recognize as Pemberley, is the ideal place for otherworldly occurrences. Rebecca Hall is smokin’ as usual, her features and disposition are wonderfully suited to the time period, and the rest of the performances are serviceably forgettable, moving the story along but nothing unexpectedly wonderful. Director and writer Nick Murphy has directed many TV shows, but this is his first feature, and while it’s not perfect, it’s not terrible for a first endeavor.
The interesting thing about the film isn’t the ending but the journey there, and its a pity that the journey isn’t more enjoyable. Sadly, The Awakening isn’t really scary but it is passable, you should probably go see it if you like period pieces that are also ghost mysteries. (Or like to see Rebecca Hall dressed up like a lady aviator, which I can now cross off my personal dream list.) But don’t expect too much from this one-note thriller, and you might be perfectly satisfied.