BFI London Film Festival Review: The Awakening (2011)

Rebecca Hall in The Awakening (2011) Movie Image BFI

Marking the big screen debut of television director Nick Murphy, “The Awakening” is an old fashioned British ghost story following the usual creepy goings-on in a countryside boys’ boarding school. With a script by Murphy and veteran genre screenwriter Stephen Volk (responsible for a number of old favourites such as “Gothic”, “The Kiss” and “The Guardian”), the film attempts to add a certain emotional depth to the familiar form, along of course with a few spins and plenty of scares.

The film is set in England in 1921, and opens with ghost hunter/debunker and famous author Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall, recently in “The Town”) exposing a cleverly planned séance as a hoax. Being known as the best in the business, she is reluctantly invited by a teacher called Robert Mallory (Dominic West, “The Wire”) to visit his boarding school in the countryside, where the boys are living in fear of a child ghost that has apparently already claimed at least one victim. Despite suffering from her own troubles after the death of her lover in the war, Hall agrees to take on the case and travels to the school, which turns out to be a huge manor with surrounding estates, where a murder is rumoured to have taken place some years back. As she investigates, she slowly becomes convinced that something supernatural is indeed afoot, and is forced to question her cynical beliefs when she finds her own past coming back to haunt her.

Rebecca Hall and Dominic West in The Awakening (2011) Movie Image

It’s very likely that any genre fans can guess exactly where “The Awakening” is going, especially if they’ve seen the trailer, with the film following the blueprint set down by “The Others” and “The Orphanage” with disappointingly blinkered determination. Combining various instantly recognisable elements of these and other high profile ghost themed efforts from the last decade, the film is acutely predictable, with almost all of its revelations and supposed surprises being clearly telegraphed from early on. As a result, the viewer spends most of the overstretched running time desperately hoping that Murphy and Volk are planning some kind of curveball, only to end up baffled and possibly angered when they instead finish the film with exactly the same kind of supposed twist seen far too many times before. Matters are made worse by some needlessly convoluted plotting and heavy handed melodrama, which instead of making the film either moving or more involving only undermine the depressingly unimaginative narrative even further.

Although a lack of originality is sadly all too common in horror cinema, Murphy doesn’t even have the sense to compensate through creative shriek set pieces or by at least throwing in a respectable amount of supernatural action. If anything, the film quite proudly shies away from trying to scare the audience, seeming to be content with just a few semi-laughable CGI shots of the ghost child and a daft pseudo-symbolic dollhouse motif, which given the later plot dénouements make very little sense. While there is always something to be said for atmosphere and slow burn chills, all the fine production values and the marvellously sinister house itself, along with the decent (if occasionally overwrought) performances from the cast, ultimately count for very little. Pretty much everything here falls flat, and though competently made, the film’s only power to terrify lies in the threat that it will never end, pig-headedly dragging out its entirely by the numbers final act as if labouring under some impression of meaningfulness or high drama.

Rebecca Hall in The Awakening (2011) Movie Image

This all probably sounds rather harsh, though by refusing to show any ambition or desire to do anything other than recycling already tired genre tricks, it’s hard to view “The Awakening” as anything other than a pointless, slow moving exercise in repetition. Almost having the feel of a remake, while it may justifiably wins some plaudits for its handsome look and sets, there’s simply no excuse for this kind of lazy film making, using up budgetary resources which could surely have been dedicated to something that adds to the form or at least actually tries to thrill and entertain.

Nick Murphy (director) / Stephen Volk, Nick Murphy (screenplay)
CAST: Rebecca Hall … Florence Cathcart
Dominic West … Robert Mallory
Imelda Staunton … Maud Hill
Lucy Cohu … Constance Strickland
John Shrapnel … Reverend Hugh Purslow
Diana Kent … Harriet Cathcart
Richard Durden … Alexander Cathcart

Buy The Awakening on DVD