The Awakening continues the time honoured tradition of the haunted house movie, one that takes itself extremely seriously. Evoking other 21st century horrors such as The Others, The Orphanage and The Devil’s Backbone, for the most part this is a perfectly enjoyable ghost story only let down by a groan-inducing deadweight of an ending.
Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is an author and sceptic of all things supernatural, making a living exposing people who make others believe that ghosts exist. One day she is asked by Robert Mallory (Dominic West) to come to the boy’s prep school where he works in order to investigate the alleged appearances of a ghost child which is terrorising the school’s children.
As his feature debut director Nick Murphy has made a classy, stately horror movie that gets most of its scares from eerie silences, shadowy rooms, creaking floorboards and a general suggestion of what might be there lurking rather than resorting to crass jump scares for the sake of it. That’s not to say there isn’t a healthy dose of the letter but that comes as a result of the expertly crafted build-up. This is all helped by the minimalist score by Daniel Pemberton – making use of sparse piano and piercing violins but bursting into shrieking life when needed – and the elegant, almost washed-out cinematography by Eduard Grau.
The performances are all very good including Dominic West and the always dependable Imelda Staunton. But it’s Rebecca Hall as the sceptical Florence that really stands out; it’s truly fantastic to see her get a meaty leading role to sink her teeth into when up until now she’s only really had the chance to shine in supporting roles with the likes of The Town, Vicky Christina Barcelona, The Prestige and Frost/Nixon. It’s always great to see such a talented actress get her due.
So with it doing so much right what stops The Awakening from being truly great cinema? Two words: the ending. Just when you’ve been led to believe that this film is going to shy away from the cliches of a lot of these types of horrors, the ending comes along and throws a spanner in the works. It’s not exactly a spoiler to say there is a twist to the story, indeed more than meets the eye, but it’s not only the idea of what the twist is itself that’s irritating but the way it handled feels really clunky and fails to offer any sort of satisfying resolution because its attention is firmly on trying to shock you. The fact that the film was so solid up until that point makes the turning point all the more frustrating.
What is an otherwise subtle, quietly effective are-they-real-are-they-not ghost story is weighed down by a trite, contrived twist ending. There’s still enough there to make it a worthwhile watch but it’s unfortunately not the great film it had the potential to be.