Rebecca Hall is Florence Cathcart a post World War One London-based hoax-exposer. Of high education (Cambridge) and fame (her widely read books) she’s also, you would imagine at any rate, very much the Suffragette. She’s independent, skeptic and very much her own woman.
Then war wounded Robert Mallory (Dominic West – solid) comes calling from a rather stately all-boys’ rural boarding school. He details the recent death of a young student, the chill that’s swept through the atmosphere of the school, mysterious sightings and a newfound fear amongst the boys. He also brings some pictorial evidence of something lurking in old school group photos. Initially reluctant but soon very much on board, Florence travels north to investigate further.
Billed as The Others meets The Orphanage, The Awakening doesn’t quite match up to either of those pictures, but still offers plenty of ornate, considered and well-executed spooks. Stronger in its first half than its second, we are offered a studied portrait of a refusal to live a life in unexplained fear while, in a gently informed post Great War setting, a restrained melancholy infuses its ghostly manifestations.
Jon Henson’s production design is impeccable: the set, costumes and location are all perfectly interwar Britain. The visuals are top drawer thanks to Eduard Grau’s sumptuously elegant cinematography. Meanwhile, the always-excellent Imelda Staunton has a good supporting role. It is undoubtedly a high quality packaged. But the inherent stateliness of the entire enterprise somewhat dilutes the overall horror and rarely is the film ever genuinely chilling. The gradual change in Hall’s Florence is handled too rashly for us to fully catch up and come on board with and the denouement is also overtly-convoluted. But as a beautifully crafted horror-mystery, with strong performances and a fully realised setting you will do far worse.