Sometimes the most compelling ghosts aren’t the ones that hover in the halls or stack the furniture on the kitchen table. The ones in our own heads haunt just as well.
In “The Awakening,” Rebecca Hall plays Florence Cathcart, a young woman in 1921 England, whose lover has been killed in the Great War. She attempts to drown her sorrow and her memories in writing, investigating and debunking spiritualists, the “charlatans” preying on the grief hovering over the country like a dark cloud. She receives an invitation from teacher and war veteran Robert Mallory to investigate a haunting in a boarding school, a ghost that may have caused the recent death of one of the students. Once at the school, her scientific method and beliefs are put to the test, and she is forced to confront both the spirit in the school, and the ghosts of memory that haunt her past.
More ambitious than your average ghost story, co-writer and director Nick Murphy taps into a time period haunted not only by the deaths of so many young men in the War, but also by the many souls lost in the influenza epidemic of 1919. “It is a time for ghosts,” as Florence says. Murphy gets the basic pieces in place, though some seem drawn from the “build your own ghost story” kit. He has the good sense to ground his story in an earnest atmosphere, and a lead character with genuine presence.
As expected from a BBC production, the period detail of the sets and costuming are excellent. Hidden cupboards, time-worn classrooms, the casual cruelty of young boys (and teachers) that seems to have seeped into the worn grayish walls. Brits could probably relate more to the loneliness of boarding schools that “The Awakening” weaves into its storyline, but the weight of grief that informs the film is striking. Murphy’s patient reveal of character detail gives the film a real emotional heft, helpful as the film provides only intermittent chills.
This level of intelligence and emotional commitment is appreciated, noble even in a genre effort. But eventually “The Awakening” falls victim to its own self-serious nature and a tediously protracted third act. The character of the combat-dodging groundskeeper is puzzling, and his final disposition surprisingly indifferent. The array of scientific apparatus Florence employs seems to be shipped in from a different, goofier movie (“Renee Zellweger IS Dr. Spirit J. Lovelorn!”), or an old Doctor Who episode.
Hall is excellent in the central role, resisting bug-eyed ghost-chaser theatrics, and reliable character actress Imelda Staunton gives her usual strong performance as the housekeeper with a secret connection to the school. As Mallory, the shell-shocked professor with a gimpy leg and eyes for Florence, Dominic West barely registers in an underwritten part.
“The Awakening” is presented in 1080p High-Definition Widescreen, in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The digital transfer capably captures the moody, desaturated gray-brown lighting scheme and occasional extreme close-ups without any noticeable problems. There are English SDH and Spanish subtitles available.
The main feature audio track is Dolby 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Quality is excellent and highly detailed, well spread from front to back and side to side. There is a Spanish language track. Extras are in Dolby Digital 2.0.
- A set of deleted scenes, each introduced by director Nick Murphy. His commentary is more entertaining than the scenes themselves
- “A Time For Ghosts” – an interesting, lengthy set of interviews about the national mood of grief and trauma post-WWI, the spread of spiritualism, and the boarding school experience
- “Anatomy of a Scene: Florence and The Lake”—funny and enjoyable interviews with the filmmakers about the thematic meaning and complicated technical requirements of a pivotal sequence in the film
- “Anatomy of a SCREAM”—Murphy and the cast speak about their feelings on the supernatural
- “Behind The Scenes”—Hall, West, and Staunton talking about their roles in the films. The weakest of the extras, with some overlap with the other featurettes
- an extended interview with Nick Murphy
Serious and well-intentioned, “The Awakening” is a ghost story with an emotional heart, but falters in a complicated, drawn out last act.