The Film: The Awakening (2011)
The Principles: Written by Stephen Volk and Nick Murphy. Directed by Nick Murphy. Acted by Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Shaun Dooley, Joseph Mawle and John Shrapnel.
The Premise: It’s England in 1921 when we meet Florence Cathcart (Hall), a lonely and isolated woman who makes her living disproving hoaxes related to the supernatural. She doesn’t believe in an afterlife, ghosts or anything related to phenomenon that can’t be proven through science and observation. Florence is hired by Robert Mallory (West) to come out to an all-boys boarding school in the country to investigate multiple sightings of a ghost child. As the skeptical Florence gets drawn deeper into the mystery, she’ll be confronted with not only the specters haunting the school, but the ghosts of her own past as well. Woooooooooooooooooo.
Is it good? If this film were a bag, it would be mixed. One chilling scene will lead into a scene where everyone acts brain damaged and idiotic. A gorgeous piece of dialogue will be followed by a clunky and horrible piece of exposition. A lovely performance moment follows embarrassing overacting. It is so inconsistent that it’s really hard to give the movie a pass even though there is a quite a bit to like here, thematically, as well as the tense atmosphere, wonderful cinematography and a few chilling moments.
The biggest problem is that the film is redundant when compared to movies like The Orphanage and The Devil’s Backbone, which both have very similar plots and settings but execute them so much more intelligently. Judging from the trailers for the upcoming The Conjuring, that film might have these same problems because when you have a story whose central character is a skeptic out to disprove something, then there’s really only so many moves the film can make. You have a slow burn build up of supernatural events that slowly pulls the central character out of their disbelief (which they’re in because of some past trauma) until they have no choice but to face the demons, personal and otherwise. The Awakening circumvents this slightly by having the final act descend into a Twist Movie, which it then spends the rest of the running time explaining and backing its way out of. The twist might have worked in a different movie, but here it just feels like an undercooked cheat and it erases some of the goodwill built up by the things that actually work.
Rebecca Hall is fantastic and I doubt there’s anything she’ll ever do where she won’t be. I feel like she’s only going to get bigger (deservedly so) and hopefully her work here combined with Iron Man 3 and The Town will be enough to keep her working in A-list projects. Dominic West, who was inconsistent in the past, is fantastic here as a half-broken man who was almost destroyed in the war and just wants to find some peace. West (wonky accent aside) was truly wonderful in The Wire and was pretty bad in 300, but he finds the soul of his character here and has the most moving arc of the film. Imelda Staunton is her typically wonderful self, playing the polar opposite of her Dolores Umbridge and wringing sympathy out of almost every word. There’s even a bit of a Game of Thrones reunion with an almost unrecognizable Benjen Stark and an even younger Bran Stark playing off of each other. This cast deserves better than the final product of the film. It tries hard and a lot of effort was put into recreating the period and whatnot, but The Awakening is just too slight and reminiscent of other, better films to be fully successful.
Is it worth a look? If you are in the mood for an atmospheric period ghost story, then I’m sure there’s worse out there. Keep your expectations low and you’ll be able to enjoy a well made, if heavily flawed film. I thought the final scene was fantastic, while the one preceding it was garbage and that’s the battle the film has with itself for the entire running time. If that won’t frustrate you too much, then go for it.
Random anecdotes: Rebecca Hall’s father is the FUCKING FOUNDER of the Royal Shakespeare Company. That makes her royalty as far as I’m concerned.
This is the 10th film to be titled The Awakening since 1913 and it is still a terrible title. It’s nice some things never change. Comforting.
This movie made me sleepy.
Cinematic soulmates: The Orphanage, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Sixth Sense, The Skeptic, The Prestige.