The Awakening is an awfully contrived haunted-house movie
Starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West. Rated 14A. Opens Friday, August 24, at the International Village Cinemas
The suffocating grief after the First World War hangs over The Awakening like a thick, grey cloud. That shadow of death, coupled with gorgeously muted colours and production design, imbue this otherwise average ghost movie with much more atmosphere than it probably deserves.
It also helps that Rebecca Hall takes the lead role: it’s 1921, and Florence is a hoax investigator who is invited to a remote British boys school where the students are terrified of what they think is the ghost of a child. One student has recently died, reportedly out of fear upon coming face to face with the spectre and its twisted facial expression.
Florence brings along her Sherlock Holmes–worthy assortment of gear, from differential thermometers to tripwires, to prove that the ghost isn’t real. But as you can probably imagine, things become a lot more complicated. Are the naughty boys pulling tricks? Are any of the menacing schoolmasters or caretakers trying to terrorize them? Is the ghost real? Or is Florence, so driven by the loss of her parents as a child and of her lover during the war, simply starting to lose her mind?
A lot about the premise and setting, with its tall windows and shadowy hallways, will remind you of The Others or The Orphanage. But plenty of twists and red herrings keep the plot rolling along, with solid characters like Imelda Staunton’s grim housemaid and Dominic West’s guilt-ridden war-survivor schoolmaster to add extra depths of mystery.
The best scares here build on elements of the eerie setting: the multipaned glass doors, rooms with cast-iron tubs, secret passageways, and a particularly spooky dollhouse.
In fact, the film ultimately becomes a victim of that atmosphere and buildup. After all the crescendoing creepiness, the final revelation feels awfully contrived. Still, if you think the most important thing about a haunted-house movie is the haunted house, you’ve found home.
Watch the trailer for The Awakening.