“The Awakening” is an old-fashioned haunted house story with a couple of neat twists. Rebecca Hall’s bewitching portrayal of Florence Cathcart, an early 20th century ghost-busting novelist working in post World War I England, gives debut director/co-writer Nick Murphy plenty to work with. In keeping with such suspense-teetering thrillers as “The Devil’s Backbone” and “The Others,” chills and spills come as much from a ghostly atmosphere of uncluttered spaces as from sudden shocks of paranormal activity.
Florence garners fans with her novels, and enemies by assisting police in busting up phony moneymaking séance rings around London, circa 1921. At a time when nearly all of England’s population has lost relatives in the war, people are desperate for any kind of contact with the dead — however hokey that connection might be. A visit from private boys’ academy headmaster Robert Mallory (Dominic West) invites Elizabeth to investigate the rural Rookford School for evidence of a young male ghost who has been busy terrorizing its students and faculty. A young student recently died there. As well, a murder occurred on the estate several decades ago. Mallory carries battle scars from the war, which cause him to stammer and limp. Nonetheless, he has a romantic connection with Elizabeth, whose professional approach to her work doesn’t hinder her emotional availability. An especially curious scene finds Florence spying on Mallory as he tends to an unhealed wound on his leg after a bath. Florence and Mallory each have secrets that need airing out.
Hall’s ghost hunter is one sexy creature. Cinematographer Eduard Grau (“A Single Man”) balances the film’s potentially suffocating drab color-scheme with vibrant compositions that keep the eye moving. His teasing depiction of windswept Gothic isolation is the stuff of an alluring horror-fantasy.
Imelda Staunton spices up the Gothic drama as the school’s personable doyenne Maud. A fan of Elizabeth’s books, Maud is a supportive foil for Elizabeth against the school’s creeping horror, which also comes in the very physical form of a threatening groundskeeper named Joseph (Joseph Mawle).
The narrative isn’t without a few cobwebs. The malevolent groundskeeper comes across as a gratuitous device used to rev up suspense late in the story. The one-dimensional character isn’t awarded any kind of inner-life to bring meaning to his violent actions.
Although the all-boy student body is away on vacation, one boy — Tom Hill (well played by newcomer Isaac Hempstead Wright) stays behind. Florence and Tom strike up a friendship upon which the plot twists. The story finds itself playing catch-up when the proceedings are brought to a close with a barrage of backstory exposition designed to tie the narrative up with a neat bow.
Still, the ensemble performances go a long way toward masking the script’s less persuasive aspects. “The Awakening” is all about mood and tone. Peepholes, poison, and long dim hallways with ghosts at the end of them never get old.
Rated R. 107 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)