Nick Murphy’s The Awakening (2011) is set in 1920s England and tells the chilling tale of a supposedly haunted boarding school. A very British affair, the film was shot on location in the UK and features a small cast of some of our finest exports in the form of Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton.
The year is 1921, but the overwhelming sense of loss caused by the First World War is still very much present in England. Business has never been better for supernatural hoax investigator Florence Cathcart (Hall), as the grief of a nation is exploited by opportunists seeking to convince the paying public that they can communicate with those who have been lost.
After exposing yet another case of supernatural fraud in London, Cathcart is approached by Robert Mallory (West) who teaches at a boarding school for young boys. Mallory describes the ghostly apparitions which many of the boys claim to have seen and begs for Cathcart’s assistance in debunking these fears. They both then travel to the school, where Cathcart begins what will inevitably emerge as the toughest investigation of her life.
With the incredible recent financial success of James Watkins’ The Woman in Black (2012) it would seem that cinemagoers are once again enamoured with the terrifying thrills and chills of those who go bump in the night. Released three months before, The Awakening unfortunately failed to find a large audience. However, the film has many interesting and endearing qualities which certainly merit closer inspection.
Rooted in three wonderfully grounded performances from Hall, West and Staunton, the film features many a meaningful interaction between characters with substantial and relevant histories of pain and loss. A sense of grief and emptiness pervades the film through its muted colour palette, withdrawn characters, melancholic score and expansive yet almost entirely barren setting. The film sustains this atmosphere and maintains tension throughout, whilst providing viewers with a significant amount of heart pounding shocks.
Unfortunately, the film is not without fault. At times the dialogue can veer into thinly veiled exposition which leaves little to the imagination. One particular instance of shockingly clichéd dialogue will have audiences screaming in terror, as a single sentence from West’s Mallory swiftly defiles the graves of every twist film produced in the last twenty years.
The main problem with The Awakening lies in its highly disappointing final act. After successfully building suspense and maintaining a consistent tension throughout, the last act of the film pulls in one too many different directions. Proceeding to spew out twist after twist in too short a space of time, the film will leave viewers feeling irritated and cheated.
Although far less problematic on a second viewing, The Awakening suffers from several script related issues which work to undermine its many positive elements. However, the film is an enjoyably atmospheric and tense piece with a lot to offer those who can look beyond its faults.