As Florence, emotionally exhausted, returns home after the fake medium has been arrested, she finds a man on her doorstep who says he needs her help with what appears to be a genuine ghost. Mallory (Dominic West) is a former soldier, now a teacher at a remote boys' boarding school in the country where a few weeks earlier one of the pupils apparently died of fright after seeing the ghost of a boy reputedly murdered there many years earlier.
Despite her initial refusal to become involved, Florence soon arrives at the school, a huge old country estate full of rooms and passageways. Everyone she meets there is damaged in some way – Mallory and another teacher, McNair (Shaun Dooley), were both in the war and still suffer what we now call PTSD, though back then it was shattered nerves; the school's handyman Judd (Joseph Mawle) is plagued by guilt for having avoided the war and anger at the barely concealed contempt of the ex-soldier teachers; the housekeeper Maud (Imelda Staunton) seems extremely sensitive to the cruelties of the boys who bully and torment the weaker among them; and Tom (Isaac Hempstead Wright), one of these lonely boys, is forced to stay on at the school as the rest leave for home during a school term break.
As Florence places her various pieces of scientific equipment around the school in the days before the break, she is certain that she will expose pranksters among the boys ... and quite quickly uncovers a rational solution to the pupil's recent death. But her discovery of what happened devastates her and it becomes apparent that all her efforts to debunk ghosts conceal a deeper desire to uncover actual evidence of survival – she uses her intellect to search for a justification to believe something which goes against everything she holds to be true.
And that's when the genuine manifestations begin and she starts to be drawn into a deeper mystery which has devastating implications for her personally.
The Awakening is steeped in atmosphere, the cool, muted colours of Eduard Grau's cinematography giving it a damp and chilly tone which reflects the crushed emotions of all the characters. It's a film full of pain and fear which is rooted in the finely detailed psychology of the characters. The performances are uniformly excellent and, like many classic ghost stories, the overall effect is more of sadness than horror. In fact, perhaps the weakest element of the film is the ghost itself, which apart from a few brief shocks, is presented in a prosaic manner leading to a climactic revelation of suppressed memories which is almost cliched, although very well staged.