Period film: The Awakening (2011)

Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is famous throughout England for her skepticism. For a living she exposes scams, debunks hoaxes and generally shoots down anything remotely paranormal by finding evidence that it’s all the work of con artists.

(Image via lefthandhorror.com)
(Image via lefthandhorror.com)

Robert Mallory (Dominic West) comes to Florence one day, telling her that a headmaster of a school in the country has invited her to investigate a ghost that supposedly frightens the school’s young students to death. Years ago a student was murdered at the school, and everyone believes the murdered boy is haunting the building.

Florence is reluctant to take the case because she thinks it’s all a simple prank the schoolboys play on each other, but she eventually accepts the job. Florence thinks she’s got a rational explanation for everything that has happened, and the school’s staff and pupils are all released on vacation… but after they leave, Florence begins to have strange experiences as she prepares to leave the boarding school.

Nick Murphy (Manor House) directs 2011’s The Awakening, which he also co-wrote the screenplay for along with Stephen Volk (The Kiss, The Guardian).

Set in post-World War I England, The Awakening is full of beautiful, period-appropriate props like antique cameras and cars. The costuming sometimes looks more late ’30s/early ’40s than early ’20s to me, but in general the film does a decent job of capturing the period, and I have to applaud them for not dressing everyone up as a flapper. I also appreciate the fact that the photographs used in the film are gelatin silver prints — a process that first appeared in the late 19th century, would have been popular in the post-war period and is still used by 35mm enthusiasts (such as myself) today.

Aside from its generally good capturing of its period, the film is a decent watch. Traditional “spooky” music is used (sometimes a little bit over-the-top, but not to the point of parody). The estate setting is spectacular and there’s some very good mood-building throughout.

Rebecca Hall’s character is interesting to watch. She starts out a skeptic, very strong-willed and intelligent, very scientific in her approach to investigating the school’s odd happenings. As the film goes on she sort of loses her marbles, becoming more confused about what’s going on at the school and becoming unsure of herself.

The descent into madness is a familiar journey for fans of the horror genre, so The Awakening doesn’t break any new ground, but Hall’s performance is solid. Imelda Staunton as the headmistress of the school and Dominic West as Robert also give strong performances, with Staunton outshining the rest of the film’s supports.

(Image via perioddrama.com)
(Image via perioddrama.com)

The decline of Florence’s mental state leads up to a twist ending having to do with secrets of her own past. This, again, is not terribly surprising, but it’s shot in an unusual way that makes it interesting to watch. (I can’t say more without giving away the twist!)

The Awakening is slightly slow-moving with very few “big scare” moments, but it’s got a couple of decent jumps, an overall successful aura of paranormal creepiness and a decent twist. It held my attention well despite its issues, and it works as a period piece. I enjoyed watching it and would recommend it to fans of traditional paranormal thrillers; You may see every twist coming, but at the very least the film’s atmosphere will capture you. The score: 3/5

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