Distributed by StudioCanal UK
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
The Awakening takes place in England in 1921 and stars Rebecca Hall as Florence Cathcart. A published author, Florence is a skeptic and has dedicated her life to debunking ghost stories and exposing charlatans who take advantage of the innocent looking for one last moment with their lost loved ones. But Florence, herself, is haunted by the guilt she feels at having spurned the affections of the man she loved out of fear. That man was a soldier in World War I and died shortly after the episode. With every charlatan she exposes, Florence feels pain because, deep down, she secretly hopes that she can somehow have that one last moment with her beaux.
When she is approached by Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a teacher from a boarding school that may or may not be haunted, Florence at first scoffs at her visitor. He explains that the boarding school had once actually been home to a family and that a young boy had tragically died there. Since the boarding school came into being, a young boy has been seen by a number of students. His face is blurred and no one has ever proven his existence, except through his appearance in photographs. Florence is unimpressed until Robert explains that a student has died recently of mysterious causes.
Intrigued by the mystery surrounding this boy's death and the successive school photographs featuring the blurred features of a young boy appearing in various positions in each, Florence travels to the countryside boarding school bent on disproving the existence of ghosts. But when Florence begins to experience the unexplainable, will she become a believer in the paranormal, or will the ghosts of her past threaten to overcome her?
The Awakening isn't your average ghost story. Sure, there are moments of darkness during which a spooky sound or visual is employed to shock the viewer, but a great deal of the hauntings that tale place in this movie actually happen in daylight. There are moments when you aren't quite sure if you are actually watching a haunting or if someone is toying with Florence, trying to make her a believer when, in fact, it is a very alive human staging things. This movie will keep you guessing from its beginning to its very shocking ending.
And while we are discussing endings, there are some who will find this movie's ending to be annoying in its ambiguity, but I find that ambiguity to be refreshing. The unique ending somewhat leaves things up in the air...leaving how things turned in the hands of the beliefs of the viewers themselves. To say more will be to reveal the final moments of the movie and I don't want to do that, but suffice it to say that the ending can be interpreted in two very different ways.
Rebecca Hall is terrific as Florence Cathcart, using facial expressions to reveal things about her character that are never voiced. On the exterior is a tough, cynical, playfully intelligent woman, but in the eyes, we see the haunted soul of Florence thanks to Rebecca Hall's powerful acting. Dominic West is enjoyable as the teacher who cares for the safety of his students, but also has a hidden secret or two of his own. Hall and West have a great chemistry that makes their eventual romantic endeavors quite believable.
There were excellent performances from other important actors in this film such Imelda Staunton as Maude, the housekeeper, a dramatic, fanciful woman with special hopes for Florence - a far cry from the last performance I had seen as the evil Delores Umbridge in the Harry Potter movies. Isaac Hempstead-Wright is adorable as Tom, a lonely young man with quite an interesting history. Some actors who appeared in another ghost story I enjoyed, The Woman in Black, put in fine performances here: Shaun Dooley as an abusive teacher and Alfie Field as a lonely, haunted young student. Joseph Mawle also shines as the sneaky and generally unlikeable groundskeeper.
Having finally seen this film, I can now say that the musical score, which I found so enjoyable before seeing the movie, is just what I imagined it to be. The music perfectly compliments the visuals of the film, making moments of scary revelation even more powerful.
I loved The Awakening for its excellent storyline, the likeability of the characters, the shocking twists and more importantly, the way the film was made. This was not your gory, ghost/horror film. This is a thinking man's ghost story - is she really seeing these things or is someone making her see them...or perhaps maybe she is losing her mind.
There is little in the way of visual special effects here and I loved that as well. Sometimes you don't need a whole lot of flash, just a glimpse of a blurry ghostlike countenance, proper lighting, proper mood and a well-composed musical score to add that spooky element to a film. The Awakening has that and more, making it one of those ghost stories that you will enjoy watching again and again, looking for the clues you might have missed throughout the film that foreshadowed the ending revelations. Definitely a must see for any fan of ghost stories!