Most contemporary ghost stories are about haunted people rather than haunted places. This is the legacy of Henry James and Shirley Jackson, and it's the reason that many such stories seem more like dramas than horror movies. The Awakening (2012, directed by Nick Murphy) is such a film. It's a film with pedigreed actors and a Masterpiece Theater aesthetic, genteel and respectable. I'm sure Henry James would have approved. The Awakening is also one of those films that demonstrates conclusively that film is not necessarily an actor's medium.
The Awakening is set in 1921. It follows professional debunker Florence Cathcart, who has no patience for the spiritual huggermugger of the day. The film opens with a seance, where Florence dramatically reveals the chicanery behind it, much to the heartbreak of the attendees. The attendees are grieving people, which in addition to making them easy marks for predatory charlatans, also makes them ungrateful to Florence for dashing their hopes. The job takes a toll on her. She'd rather retreat to her flat, where she doesn't have to put up a front of proper womanhood. Enter Robert Mallory, a schoolteacher at a secluded boarding school, who comes to Florence with a tale of ghosts and of a dead student who was apparently frightened to death. Against her better judgement, Florence accepts the challenge. She learns the actual non-supernatural circumstances of the student's death in short order, but discovers in the process that there might be something to the ghost story after all. After the students are sent packing for Christmas break, she stays on to investigate further. Remaining at the school is Mallory, to whom she is attracted and with whom she shares a traumatic loss during the Great War. Also remaining is Maud, the house keeper, Mr. Judd, the groundskeeper, and Tom, one of the students whose parents live in India, which is too far away for him to spend the holidays there. As Florence delves deeper into the history of the ghost and into the strange things that are happening around her, it becomes clear to her that the haunting has a personal meaning for her, and that not everyone remaining at the school is all that they seem.
Although it doesn't stand up to a comparison to the great ghost stories of the last decade or so, there's a lot to like about The Awakening. I like the connection it draws with its time period. The Great War hangs over every character in this movie like a grand national haunting. There's enough lingering trauma from the war and from the influenza epidemic of 1918 to fuel a thousand ghost stories. While I was watching this film, I kept hearing lines from the great war poets of WWI, who often framed their imagery in the form of hauntings. For instance:
"The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still
And I remember things I'd best forget."
-- Sigfried Sassoon
"Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jays that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls' teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain,- but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands' palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?
This sort of thing echoes throughout the film, whether it's Florence's memento of a lost lover or Mallory's leg wound, or either of their survivor's guilt. It's very effective.
I also like this film's heroine. Florence Cathcart is what would have been called a "new woman" in 1921, one who wears pants and smokes cigarettes and doesn't care if it's "proper" for a lady. She's educated, too, and the best in her chosen field. The film has a sub-theme dedicated to what happens when such a woman bumps up against institutional patriarchy, though it ultimately doesn't figure in the denouement. And I like the actors. I can watch Rebecca Hall in anything. It's fun watching Dominic West play against type as a haunted school teacher. Imelda Staunton gives able support as Maud the Housekeeper. The entire cast give committed performances. The Awakening is worth watching just for the actors. They're even fun to watch as the twists of the plot jump the rails in the end, because it provides them all with a rare opportunity to examine and perform their characters in extremis. Purely as a matter of production design, this is a handsome film, one that manages a genteel kind of menace. It's a film with some very strong images, including an unexpectedly erotic scene in which Florence reveals herself to an unseen watcher after pleasuring herself in the bathtub that feeds a sub theme of sexual agency that runs through the entire film. Another scene--an attempted rape--also feeds that narrative.
Unfortunately, the ruthless mechanics of the plot do none of these admirable elements any favors. As I say, this film jumps the rails in the end. Watching all the good elements the film surely provides come to naught is disappointing. They all deserve better from the script. I wish, for instance, that this had the strength of its protagonist's convictions. Movies like to abuse skeptics. They like to force them out of a skeptical worldview into a troubling credulity. When a skeptic shows up in a horror movie, their worldview is likely to be torn down brick by brick. That happens here, and I'm impatient with this trope. Don't get me wrong: I like horror movies, even supernatural ones. But I also like seeing people with whom I share a worldview vindicated. Where is Velma Dinkley when you need her, eh? I'm also uncomfortable with the ambiguity with which this resolves itself. The "is she dead or isn't she?" question at the end is more infuriating than anything else. This, after a prolonged exegesis in which the film's twists unravel themselves, and in which everything is centered on a trauma in Florence's past. There's at least one twist in the film's revelations that seems to me like the film is cheating, but whatever. It's a minor point.
Mostly, this suffers in comparison. This is a film that shares too much in common with better films. For a wild instant, as the film gives the audience a distant shot of a train moving through the Scottish landscape, I was suddenly in one of the Harry Potter films, a feeling punctuated when Imelda Staunton makes her entrance a few shots later. More troubling are comparisons that can be drawn to films like The Orphanage, The Devil's Backbone, and The Others. I understand that the ghost story is among the most ritualized subegenres in existence, and I can live with that, but I need to be met halfway sometimes. Show me something new. Upend the applecart. Show it all as a fraud or as the visions of a fevered mind. This film chooses, instead, to play it safe, trusting that the elements it assembles will transcend this. It's mostly a failed gamble.