Without giving too much away in my review’s preamble, I’ll say this: it’s a good film – very well performed – very wonderfully photographed – very solidly constructed. It’s occasionally dark. It’s sporadically moody. It does a good job of creating the atmosphere required for a good ghost story. But dare I suggest that there was something … missing?
In fact, I’ll go one step further: I love the picture’s two leads. (You’ll know who they are in a moment.) I think they’re perfectly cast, and I think they do fabulous work together in what otherwise might’ve been a theatrical blunder. Their chemistry lifts the film in its quieter moments – even sustains it through some of its curious shenanigans – and I can’t imagine two other people having filled the shoes of these two characters. They own them, and that’s its greatest strength.
Still … yes, something’s amiss in The Awakening.
I think I’ve put my finger on what didn’t work for me, and I can’t help but wonder if others felt the same way as this is one ghost flick I’ve (surprisingly) heard nothing about even ten years after its original theatrical release. Though I’m glad I discovered it, I’d probably stop short of giving it a full ‘must see’ recommendation. It’s likely best seen by only the most ardent fans of pure ghost stories, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
It may be a ‘rude awakening.’
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaing:
"They say the boy was scared to death. When the death of a child at a boarding school is blamed on a ghost, hoax exposer Florence Cathcart is certain that science and reason can explain it. But the truth she discovers is more terrifying than she could ever imagine, and soon the ghost hunter becomes the hunted."
The short skinny is that The Awakening is one of those rare releases I’d say I honestly neither liked nor disliked it. It just is what it is, though I suspect others might see it’s kinda/sorta twist ending as a bit too pre-planned and pre-packaged to be all that interesting. Director Nick Murphy collaborated with screenwriter Stephen Volk on the script that unveils its secrets very intentionally largely because if you knew what was going on a second earlier then likely none of it would work … and certainly little of it would shock.
If that sounds a bit disappointed, then I suppose I am.
The film opens with a fabulous period piece: several strangers in Victorian England have been brought together to experience a séance. One of the guests in attendance is secretly famed debunker Florence Cathcart (played winningly by Rebecca Hall), and before you can say “boo” she’s performed her civic duty, exposed the frauds for who they are, and handed them over to some detectives in wait. She’s a smart and capable lead – an 18th century Fox Mulder and Dana Scully rolled into one – and it looks like she’s set the stage for a brilliant X-files tale.
Soon thereafter, Cathcart is visited by Robert Mallory (Dominic West), an instructor for a school for boys in nearby Cumbria. As fate would have it, the place appears to have developed a bit of a ghost problem, and would the lady be interested in debunking it so that all involved can get on with the business of educating the children? Eventually Cathcart agrees, and she rather easily proves that a recent death is likely owed to a prank gone awry rather than a legitimate spirit.
However, at this point Murphy’s film takes an obviously premeditated turn, one that nevertheless forces our heroine to reexamine her conclusions. It’s a development difficult to discuss as a reviewer because to do so entirely spoils the ending (and I won’t do that). Suffice it to say, not everything is as has been presented – much like the parlor trickery of the film’s set-up – and the second half descends into such narrative trickery that it spoils an otherwise good film.
If you have to play parlor tricks to keep your story moving, then they’d best be some pretty damn convincing parlor tricks … but such is not the case here. There certainly is an awakening to The Awakening, but it’s one that viewers have no way to guess at because they’re not given all the facts. As a consequence, that twist ending? Well, it smacks less of an honest story and feels more like a dirty trick.
The Awakening (2011) is produced by StudioCanal and BBC Films. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated through Cohen Media Group. As for the technical specifications? This all looks and sounds quite good. As for the special features? The disc boasts a handful of deleted scenes with some commentary by director Nick Murphy (a nice touch as he explains why he deemed them unnecessary for the final edit along with some making-of bits that are well done. It’s a nice package: even though it’s no director’s commentary, there’s enough material here from Murphy that one gets a very good sense of what he would’ve likely said on one.
Mildly recommended. Ghost stories can be a tough sell. They’re an even tougher sale when certain elements of a particular story are deliberately withheld or obfuscated in order to keep the film’s “surprise” truly a revelation. The Awakening – while studiously performed – feels a bit forced by way of some screenwriting trickery that felt too contrived at times. A compelling and interesting first half gives way to a somewhat muddled affair, one more concerned with keeping its secrets than in sharing any truly otherworldly chills.
Disclaimer: in the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Cohen Media Group provided me with a Blu-ray of The Awakening (2011) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.