The Awakening Review

Fantastic Brit chiller set in a haunted boarding school, starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West.

Having received its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and also screening last week at the London Film Festival, you may think that British supernatural horror The Awakening isn’t just your average haunted house tale. You’d be right. The film may rely a tad too much on convention but does so in such an expertly crafted and chillingly effective way that you won’t care. Constantly suspenseful with a solid twist in the final act, The Awakening is easily one of the finest horrors created on these shores in the last few years; if it wasn’t for Kill List, we’d be proclaiming it Brit film of the year.

Set in 1921, the film stars Rebecca Hall as Florence Cathcart, an author and paranormal sceptic who is invited by teacher Robert Mallory (Dominic West) to investigate a haunting at his boarding school. Reluctantly agreeing, Florence sets about debunking the ghostly sightings, but it’s not until she solves the mystery that she has an encounter which forces her to re-evaluate all of her rational beliefs.

For a first-time director, Nick Murphy had an enviable cast to rely on: his leading trio of Hall, West and the ever-reliable Imelda Staunton all put in great shifts with Hall especially impressive as the conflicted Florence, staunch in her beliefs but with a glimmer of her hoping to be proved wrong. She’s eminently likeable, crucial for the night-time investigation sequences which crank up the tension, leading to even an object as lifeless as a doll’s house being completely chilling. While the romantic sub-plot is a tad undercooked, West proves an able foil and injects the most humour into proceedings with his cynical, dry observations, all delivered with a cut-glass accent.

With a tone that evokes the likes of The Others, the pacing of the film may prove troublesome for viewers in need of a quick horror fix; in that sense, it’s probably more accurate to describe The Awakening as a horror-drama as it allows scenes to play out and slowly build up in order to create a strong ‘something not being quite right here’ atmosphere and oodles of dread. It’s because of this that while the jump scares will be seen a mile off by horror aficionados – for example, we all know not to put our hand into something we can’t see the bottom of, such as a murky lake – they are still effectively chilling, if not outright leap-out-of-seat terrifying. In fact, the film’s strongest moment all revolves around an excellent use of mini figurines and a slow camera pan – just another aspect of the film’s superb cinematography which makes full use of its luscious countryside manor setting.

The only slight tinge of disappointment comes from the twisty climax. For a film that mainly allows the viewer to piece together events, it’s becomes too exposition-heavy but thankfully not to the extent of having one character spell it all out for you in a monologue. Instead, in keeping with the overall film, it’s delivered in a stylish and inventive way as Florence comes face-to-face with the horrific truth and while you appreciate how neatly it fits with events glanced and words spoken throughout the film, you will be left wishing you could have had the lightbulb moment yourself. It redeems itself with an ambiguous final scene though, allowing at least one topic of conversation for the post-cinema dinner or drinks.

One thing you can’t fault it for though is that instead of just delivering a haunted house thriller with more shock moments than plot developments, The Awakening focuses on the basics, such as compelling story-telling and strong performances, and uses the more conventional horror elements to enhance the film as a whole, rather than just be the whole film. It may not appeal to your standard Friday night horror crowd, but it can’t fail to delight horror fans seeking something a bit more old-school in its methods thanks to its excellent cast, stunning visuals and slow-burning shocks.

Ian Sandwell

Updated: Oct 31, 2011

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