Directed by: Nick Murphy
Written by: Nick Murphy and Stephen Volk
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, and Joseph Mawie
Summer is generally a good time for intelligent thrillers to debut. After all, both THE SIXTH SENSE and THE OTHERS cleaned up at the box office during their late Summer runs. That same reasoning applies to the US debut of co-writer/director Nick Murphy’s film THE AWAKENING. I thought this would be a by-the-numbers genre picture with millions of jump scares (which, quite frankly, I always feel cheated by), red herrings, and lots of plot holes. But I couldn’t have been more wrong! This is a film that’s just as much about atmosphere as it is about storytelling. THE AWAKENING will leave you feeling haunted and moved long after the credits roll.
Set in 1921 in post-World War I England, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is a famous professional ghostbuster. She’s made it her life’s work to debunk charlatans and opportunists who prey on the bereaved – who, thanks to disease and the war, were numerous at the time. As the job is quite taxing, Florence decides she’s calling it quits. That is, until handsome headmaster Robert Mallory (Dominic West) comes knocking on her door, desperate for help. You see, there’s been haunting of his all-boys boarding school. The young students have reported seeing a ghostly young boy whose face appears severely distorted. When one of the students turns up dead, the school is forced to take action. She’s their only hope. Feeling compelled to take the job (have I mentioned how handsome this guy is?!), Florence packs her bags and is off to the mist covered rolling hills of the English countryside. As it’s Christmas break, many of the students have left, but three people stay behind: Robert, of course; school matron Maud (Imelda Staunton), whose initial request brought Florence there; and Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), a young boy who’s been essentially abandoned by his world-traveler parents. And wouldn’t you know it, just as the ghosts are awakening in the house, so is the burning desire between Florence and Robert. Spooks and subverted sexiness ensues.
Hall and West sizzle as their romance is the light in this bleak tale. Each bring an intelligence and likeability to their roles, and give the piece the dramatic gravitas it needs. Staunton is fantastic as always, as she effuses her supporting character with broken hurt and vulnerability. But who really steals the show is Hempstead-Wright, who proves he can hold his own against these seasoned adults. Never precocious, he has a gentle and omniscious spirit that’s nothing short of riveting.
The gorgeous, washed-out color palettes by cinematographer Eduard Grau, the grand, expansive production design by Jon Hensen, and the supple and lush musical orchestrations by composer Daniel Pemberton complement one another organically and effortlessly. Even the boarding school feels like an imposing, ominous, and bleak character. Costume design by Caroline Harris helps to not only inform the audience of personality changes but – more importantly – what is real and what’s imagined.
Overall, THE AWAKENING is a top-notch thriller with plenty of edge-of-your seat tension. It all comes together quite spectacularly in the end. The film takes the best elements of THE OTHERS, RED LIGHTS, SILENT HOUSE, THE SIXTH SENSE and THE ORPHANAGE and blends them together for something entirely original. At times the film’s script does lean too much on the contrivance crutch to further the story – but since everything else about this piece is so stellar, I’m willing to forgive its ever-so-slight faults. Murphy has created a film that transcends the normal genre tropes and confinements, and has crafted something totally unique.
THE AWAKENING opens on August 17