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The Awakening (2011) – film review

May 30, 2014


Supernatural slow-burner well worth the time.

the awakening - doll house

Directed by Nick Murphy. Written by Stephen Volk & Nick Murphy. Starring: Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton and Isaac Hempstead-Wright. Year of release: 2011. Running time: 107 mins.

It is post-war England, 1921 and Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) – a strong-willed and highly-regarded séance debunker is invited to investigate an apparent haunting     at a boy’s boarding school in the country, where a boy had died many years before. As her investigation deepens, Florence discovers an intimate connection between herself and the haunting and her own forgotten past.

Set three years after the end of The Great War, when Britain was suffering post-traumatic shock on an unprecedented scale; The Awakening is a classy period-set supernatural mystery which deals with issues of bereavement, survivor’s guilt and dealing with trauma. Indeed, the horror of the most hellish war in history hangs over every aspect of the film – like a big black cloud. Thanks to a governmental edict handed down that no servicemen’s bodies would be repatriated from the frontline – some self-styled psychic mediums back home in England took advantage of relatives’ grief and sense of disbelief (that their loved ones had indeed been killed) – by holding bogus séances and charging a small fortune. Florence, too, is directly affected by the War – as revealed in her overzealous, almost fanatical dismissal of an after-life (her response in dealing with the death of her fiancé on the battlefield and the subsequent guilt she feels over the breaking off of her engagement to him prior to his death). The children at the boarding school, too, are victims of war – only there because their fathers never came home and their mothers found it difficult to cope     by themselves.

It is into this milieu that director Nick Murphy and his co-writer Stephen Volk have finely woven a beautifully-crafted and spooky ghost story – with plenty of chills and surprising reveals. The cast are uniformly excellent; with Rebecca Hall (The Prestige, Transference) again showing just how good an actor she really is. Dominic West (300, The Wire, Chicago) is also very good as Robert Mallory; a teacher suffering shell-shock who is the one who initially summons Frances to the boarding school. And the boarding school itself; with its cavernous interiors and wind-swept moody environs is also very much a character in this story – providing much of the creepy atmosphere.

the awakening - rebecca hall

There’s a chilly austerity to the look of the film and the frosty 35mm widescreen anamorphic photography by Spanish lenser Eduard Grau is simply gorgeous. And as one would expect from BBC Films – the evocation of the period (in this case – the post-war years) is rich in texture and finely-detailed.

The film commendably takes its time to create a spooky atmosphere and sustained tension in order to generate scares – which is unashameably old-school (recalling past classics like Robert Wise’s The Haunting and perhaps even more recent fare like The Devil’s Backbone) – and therefore it may not appeal as much to viewers weened on fast-cutting visuals and high-impact violence. For those, however, not adverse to measured pacing and a gradual build – the startling reveals in the second half do much to ramp up proceedings – ultimately leading to a wholly satisfying pay-off.

With its beautifully-wrought mix of creepy atmosphere, effective scares, fine performances and evocative and moody locations; The Awakening is a smartly-conceived, supernatural mystery-horror and comes highly recommended.

4 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.


From → film reviews

One Comment
  1. Yeah, saw this on rental sometime ago. Definitely one of the best horror films of late. Quite effective.

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