A lot of ghost stories start the same way: a rational person of logic or science is placed in a situation where their scepticism in the paranormal is put to test. From there, the plot can go in one of two directions: 1) our hero discovers that ghosts actually exist and he promptly soils himself; or 2) the ghost turns out to be the butler or the janitor in a costume. The trouble with the first case is that we feel cheated by the lack of a payoff when the thing that everyone says is true turns out to be true. The issue with the second outcome is that it ends up being the plot of a Scooby-Doo episode. The Sixth Sense (a modern classic by any standard) works around these problems by there being no doubt that spirits exist. But director Nick Murphy’s The Awakening does hinge on that one question: are there such things as ghosts?
Set in England after the First World War, Rebecca Hall plays Florence Cathcart, a popular author renowned for debunking the paranormal and exposing mediums. Her various methods of revealing the truth behind ‘ghosts’ involve setting up traps with tracing powders, directional thermometers and multiple cameras (ingenious bits of old technology that suggests the possibility of an Edwardian prequel to Paranormal Activity). Hall is approached by The Wire’s Dominic West, a brooding teacher from a boarding school asking for her help catching a ghost thought to be responsible for a young boy’s death. Though reluctant at first, she agrees, setting in motion a plot that finds her questioning her very beliefs.
Hall finds herself surrounded by a cast of suspicious characters, each with their own secrets: school matron Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) seems very much taken with Hall and her books while a draft-dodging groundskeeper roams the estate with a loaded shotgun, ensuring that the film is stocked-up with a healthy supply of red herrings. Long confined to playing supporting roles and love interests, Rebecca Hall makes for a compelling and smart leading actor who can also look petrified and run for her life as well as anyone. In believably portraying an independent professional woman in 1920s Britain, she manages to bring a certain authenticity to a story that otherwise didn’t need it.
Of course, the film does have its issues. The story falls apart in the third act with a few twists that come almost out of nowhere. In the wake of similar works like The Orphanage and The Others, you can sense that the writers felt pressure to deliver an ending that transforms everything that came before it. Certain characters make some frankly baffling decisions and there are enough endings to rival the last Lord of the Rings movie.
It almost chugs to a halt at the end but The Awakening is still an atmospheric, slow-boiling horror film with some genuinely tense moments and well-earned scares. You’ll be looking around the edges of every frame to try catch a glimpse of the ghost that lurk in the shadows. Or maybe it’s just the butler.