Things might not be what they seem for Rebecca Hall in The Awakening (2011)...
A cold manor house surrounded by dense woodland provides the backdrop for Nick Murphy's nuts n' bolts ghost story The Awakening, and it's one of several elements you've undoubtedly seen before. Following in the classic tradition of The Innocents (Clayton, 1961) and The Others (Amenábar, 2001), this is a film sorely lacking in originality and identity, instead acting as an efficient skim through your current DVD library; a reminder that you should probably re-watch The Orphanage (Antonio Bayona, 2007). The floorboards here are sufficiently creaky, and the house unnerving, but you'll struggle to find anything new within its walls, or indeed anything worth remembering.
The story picks up in 1921 London. The country is recovering from war and struggling to develop in the ashes of conflict. Thousands of soldiers have fallen, leaving behind widows and orphaned children. Perhaps this is a time where people have need for ghosts. Professional hoax exposer Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is dedicated to logic and science, yet secretly longs to be visited by the spirit of her loved one, who was stolen by the ravages of WWI. Schoolmaster Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a troubled ex-solider, calls her to Rockwood, a boys' boarding school seemingly haunted by the ghost of an ex-student. To nobody's surprise Florence finds it hard to debunk the rumoured sightings and instead gets wrapped up in the mystery. There are some head-slappingly obvious twists along the way (including some full-on Scooby Doo red herrings), but the fun lies in their execution.
DP Eduard Grau (who won acclaim with 2009's A Single Man, Tom Ford) shoots the landscape through a drab, grey lens, capturing a genuine bleakness through an aged aesthetic. He musters a tangible atmosphere around the spiraling staircases and foreboding corridors, but The Awakening really calls out to be shot in black and white, which would lend it the feeling of a monochrome wartime photograph. Every frame is drained of colour, and Grau is obviously striving to vary around one tone, so why not just go the whole way? I suspect it comes down to marketing, and the age of the target audience.
But black and white photography would have served another important purpose. There's something wonderfully old fashioned about Murphy's film, which creaks and groans across a heightened soundscape (courtesy of Daniel Pemberton), but it also showcases a peculiar penchant for modernism - the ghost itself, for example, defined by a CGI stretchy-mouth straight out of Asian horrors such as Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998) and Ju-On (Takashi Shimizu, 2002). Then there's our heroine, who is frequently referred to in dialogue as "educated", presumably to point out how ahead of her time this feisty protagonist is. It quickly becomes tiresome, and when her dress code also moves anachronistically toward GAP one wonders why this tale requires 1921 as its setting. My point is that black and white photography could have lent the film a definite period feeling, and further heightened the atmosphere.
There are some effective jump scares (Florence's first night in the house, a protracted set-piece of mounting dread, is exceptional), but the film's other big hangup is its lack of psychological impact. Here we are in the wake of war and economic devastation, and Florence's own battle against the spirit world she's now confronted with, and the film never raises an emotional pulse. It never got inside my head or under my skin. Character drama is foregrounded, but for what purpose if every plot strand is going to be abandoned for formulaic score-orientated scares? This is a classier horror picture than we're used to, but its ultimate ambition is no different to your average Insidious (Wan, 2010), which is to get popcorn flying in front of the screen.
That said, they just don't make 'em like this anymore, and it's nice to find a traditional English-feeling horror in cinemas once again. Hammer are releasing The Woman In Black (James Watkins) next February, so perhaps we're about to witness a resurgence? I couldn't be more excited by the prospect, especially if it's going to attract talent like Hall and West, who are terrific here, making the most of risible material. Neither are at their best, but actually the film is worth seeing for their performances. You believe their fear at every turn, even if Murphy never allows you to feel it for yourself.
The Awakening is playing at the London Film Festival on Wednesday 26th October. Its official UK release date is November 11th. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.