The string of British gothic horror continues this season with the release of director Nick Murphy’s “The Awakening,” an intelligently made set piece starring Rebecca Hall, who came to international fame through Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”
The film might not be a game changer, but it is definitely an intricate work that possesses the kind of emotional intelligence that makes such films worth seeing. It mildly reminded me of Guillermo del Toro productions such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Orphanage” -- two films that center on the frailty of children.
It is the 1920s and England is barely getting back on its feet from World War I. Many sons, brothers and husbands have been lost, and the veterans that remain are shell-shocked. Working her way through the distress of London is the brilliant writer-ghost hunter Florence Cathcart (Hall), who uncovers supernatural hoaxes. One day she is summoned by the handsome history teacher Robert Mallory (Dominic West of “The Wire”) in order to investigate a potential ghost haunting at an all-boys boarding school. She initially rejects the job but then heads off to the countryside with a strange feeling inside her gut.
As in all ghost stories, we’ve got a colossal and spooky building as the main location: a castle that was once a house but is now a school. It is rumored that there has been a ghost sighting of a young boy who may have been the perpetrator of another child’s death a couple of weeks earlier and subsequently died. Florence, being a woman of science, does not believe in this “hogwash” and starts her investigation with the help of Mallory, the housekeeper Maude (the delightful Imelda Staunton) and one of the young students, Tom (Isaac Hampstead Wright). The real problem is that this eerie place has started to creep under Florence’s skin in a mysterious way -- might she actually be linked to it somehow?
I cannot reveal the plot any further; however, I can reveal that the screenplay written by Murphy with Stephen Volk is as tight as it is clever. One of the story’s strong suits is that it efficiently uses dialogue and plot devices to suggest the harrowing emotional void that is created by the loss of a dear one. Keep in mind that all the main characters are experiencing their personal grief before the backdrop of a historical period that creates an atmosphere of looming gloom.
It is the acting talent that drives this very familiar premise throughout the trajectory of complex human emotions: Hall brings to life a smart yet vulnerable heroine and has ample screen charisma to take the film to a higher level, while Staunton provides an endearing and firm touch and West fully becomes the tortured war veteran. But it is the young Wright who comes out as the heart of the film -- at such a tender age he emits wisdom and prowess beyond his years. Wright is also one of the child actors of the HBO show “Game of Thrones,” and it is almost certain that he is in for a bright future.
Sensitive and visually pleasing, the stylistic choices of “The Awakening” are top notch. Cinematographer Eduard Grau and production designer Jon Henson create one of the most antagonizing atmospheres of the gothic horror genre, not to mention that the sound design is flawlessly utilized to give you the chills. Thankfully, cheap scares are scarcely found throughout, as skillful editing comes to the rescue. An inventive use of the photography of the period also meshes well into the film.
What resonates with the viewer, however, is not the film’s diligent craftsmanship but its ability to engage with its heartbreaking story and convincing characters. Its crescendos into horror and decrescendos into drama, and sometimes its odd combination of both, are what make it appealing. If you’re in for a good fright and the possibility of unexpected tears, this film will provide exactly that.
Directed by: Nick Murphy
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton