THE AWAKENING Review: Best Ghost Story Since The Others

For a slow burning but consistently chilling horror, which manages to be scary, erotic, intellectually and emotionally engaging you wont find anything coming out at the moment that is quite as satisfying as The Awakening.

rating: 4

With the recent reopening of Hammer Horror€™s crypt, cinemas are soon to be experience a steady deluge of classic British horror. The Awakening holds many of the Hammer hallmarks, but is not from the old Hammer catalogue; it is an original horror concept, something of a rarity to see in recent cinema, and even rarer to see done well. Rebecca Hall gives a scintillating performance, with superb support from an all-British cast in what is the best €˜ghost movie€™ since Nicole Kidman€™s €˜The Others€™. Independently wealthy cynic turned investigator Florence Cathcart has made it her mission in life to disprove the paranormal; in 1921, London was rife with people wanting to believe in the existence of ghosts following the heavy death tolls of the Spanish flu and World War I €“ indeed the opening roller asserts €œThis is a time for ghosts€ €“ so Miss. Cathcart is never short of work, discrediting fraudsters and writing books about her findings. She is approached by Robert Mallory (Dominic West) who on behalf of matron Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton) requests her skills at the prestigious boys boarding school they work at; one of the boys has recently died after reports that he saw the twisted spectre of a young boy. After visiting the school and speaking with the boys she agrees to take on the case to put their minds at ease and remove the fear that is governing their existence. Employing the best technical equipment and techniques of the time, she goes about trying to prove that there is logic and science behind every ghostly phenomenon. But as things start to go bump in the night and odd events start to occur that Cathcart cannot explain she finds herself calling her beliefs into question and being haunted by a past she had long forgotten. Nick Murphy€™s feature film directorial debut is a consistently chilling, slow burn with a solid number of shocks and scares that never feel cheap or comical. The boarding school is a typical, clichéd setting €“ it is the haunted mansion -but Murphy compensates by embracing the cold, isolation of the large halls and long corridors to their full potential. There is a lot to be said for choosing something clichéd and making it work as apposed to going for originality and having something that is unique but ineffective. His timing as a horror director is immaculate, which is of course always heavily helped in the execution by the editing, which is spot on every time in the piece. The score is haunting and melancholic and the cinematography subtle with a pallet of tones used to capture the greyness of the era and give a cold, haunting feel that is perfect for the piece. While aesthetically beautiful, the film lacks any real impressive or innovative moments of photography. If you think of the great ghost movies or chillers, The Shining, Rebecca, there are a number of scenes of clever and ambitious camerawork. But while the level of creativity is not there in the camerawork department there are scenes of great originality that evoke real terror; the best example involves a doll house, which produced the biggest jump I have seen in a cinema for a long time. The Awakening would be a more than satisfactory ghost story, which in itself is an admirable achievement. But Murphy goes further; bringing the sadness and loss that shrouded the period in England, and indeed Europe, into proceedings. All of the characters are harbouring wounds, haunted by losses that weigh heavy on their souls. They like the nation are suffering from the survivors€™ guilt that many felt following the Great War, questioning their existence and struggling with life after death, so to speak. It is this level of emotional engagement that is so sorely lacking from movies in the genre, but deployed to great effect here, particularly through the character of Cathcart that Rebecca Hall brings to life with such skill. She gives a suitably stoic performance, which utilises her characteristically cold demeanour. Yet to really convince of any versatility across genres, she is typically being cast as a dry, virtuous intellectual, which is why this is such wonderful casting. As the cynical woman haunted by a troubling past and harbouring a huge loss she shows great restraint and composure and yet behind this façade there is a softness, a tenderness and a frailty that is somehow always present in those big brown eyes and on that perfect porcelain face; it€™s slight but we know it€™s there, which is what makes Cathcart such a strong female protagonist and Hall€™s performance so affective. The obligatory ghost story twist is present, but this is one of the weaker points of the movie. It doesn€™t feel as earned and satisfying as the classic twists and leads into a third act that lacks the subtlety and smoothness of the rest of the movie. Nevertheless it is an interesting and well constructed denouement that doesn€™t feel forced, and furthermore does not feel like this is a story that was written to exploit a twist, but rather a logical conclusion to this movie. For a slow burning but consistently chilling horror, which manages to be scary, erotic, intellectually and emotionally engaging you wont find anything coming out at the moment that is quite as satisfying as The Awakening. The Awakening is released in the UK on Friday but not until next year in the U.S.
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Frustratingly argumentative writer, eater, reader and fanatical about film ‘n’ food and all things fundamentally flawed. I have been a member of the WhatCulture family since it was known as Obsessed with Film way back in the bygone year of 2010. I review films, festivals, launch events, award ceremonies and conduct interviews with members of the ‘biz’. Follow me @FilmnFoodFan In 2011 I launched the restaurant and food criticism section. I now review restaurants alongside film and the greatest rarity – the food ‘n’ film crossover. Let your imaginations run wild as you mull on what that might look like!