The Awakening, the first film from TV director Nick Murphy, is the classiest and most atmospheric period ghost story I’ve seen since The Others. It’s strategically set in a boys’ public school sited at a remote Cumbrian stately home in 1921, thus affording the possibility of tender souls carried off too soon by war and Spanish flu. Florence Cathcart, a sceptical young investigator of paranormal activity, has been called in after the death of a boy in seemingly supernatural circumstances. She rolls up with her cameras and thermometers and recording devices in a business-like and confident frame of mind, but as you’d expect the situation turns out to be not as cut and dried as she’d anticipated.
This is a very fine looking film. Not only is the bleak and forbidding location enough to get your imagination running wild on its own, with its cavernous and echoey interior spaces and the expanses of wintry woodland and austere hilltops visible through every window, but the colours have been artfully graded to accentuate chilly blues and greys and downplay the warmer colours to virtually nothing. Everyone here looks freezing, and the general state of the school’s inhabitants’ mental wellbeing doesn’t come across as too rosy either. The director runs through a lot of the stock moves of films of this genre (lengthy sequences of characters creeping round corridors at night before the sudden shock appearance of a creepy child, that sort of thing), but he does it with restraint and judgement and succeeds in never letting the film tip over into unintentionally hilarious melodrama. The actual plot turns out to be a lot more convoluted and unpredictable than it might first appear, and for my money there are maybe one or two complications too many (the thing seems to resolve after an hour of running time, before heading off in another direction), but it hangs together perfectly well and keeps you guessing until surprisingly late into the running time. A definite plus is the casting of Rebecca Hall in the lead role – whenever I’ve seen her before she’s always seemed to be in somewhat thankless third banana roles (Vicky Cristina Barcelona or The Prestige, which has certain ground in common with this film), but she’s very good indeed here, adeptly portraying her character’s gradual slide from breezy self-assurance to bewilderment and panic. Also present are Dominic West, who’s fine as a tormented history master (I guess it’s my problem that he’ll always be McNulty from The Wire to me) and Imelda Staunton, who by now can do the creepy repressed matron thing in her sleep. Like I said: classy.