There is something about a period setting that makes a ghost story more effective. In modern times, science has pushed back the boundaries of the unknown, consigning mysticism and spiritualism to the shadows, illuminating the truths beneath our primitive beliefs. Similarly, where once spooky goings on were sufficient anchor from which to suspend disbelief in a film, the last decades have seen a shift towards the body horror of Cronenberg and Carpenter and the tiresome gorn of Roth and Wan. Where does this film fit into the spectrum of the supernatural? Grab a candle and creep up the darkened staircase with Geek Chocolate as we investigate…
For a ghost story to be effective, it must be set in the past, as though the spirits of the dead were better able to seep through the cracks of consciousness before reason sealed them over, as recognised in the 1940’s settings of The Others and The Devil’s Backbone. Attempts to update a classic ghost story by adding modern scare tactics are not wise: compare the two versions of The Haunting from 1963 and 1999, one a montage of skewed angles and distorted framing illustrating the unstable mind of the lead character, the other a ludicrous potboiler featuring poltergeist manifestations and lions-head pendulum decapitations, more tortuous for the audience than the investigators of Hill House.
The debut feature from director Nick Murphy, co-written with Steven Volk, The Awakening wisely follows the period trend, set in a boarding school in 1921, “A time for ghosts,” as described by Florence Cathcart in her book Seeing Through Ghosts, her discourse on the methods of fraudulent spiritualists who would prey on the grieving masses who would seek to contact loved ones lost in the trenches of the Great War.
The opening scene demonstrates Florence’s uncompromising style, an educated woman who refuses to conform in a man’s world, as she infiltrates and upends a fake séance, but beneath her independence is the loss she carries herself, desperately hunting out fake psychics in the hope that she may one day find a genuine connection to the afterlife to offer her absolution, a conflict that drives her character. Invited to investigate the apparently supernatural death of a pupil at Rockwood School, she finds an older mystery dating back to the history of the house where the children in boarding are not the only ones who lie awake lonely at night.
Setting out equipment for paranormal detective work in a school, at times it resembles and amalgamation of two Christopher Brookmyre novels, Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks and A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil, but despite filming in Scotland, the setting and flavour are distinctly south of the border. As Florence, Rebecca Hall is perfectly cast, an English lady rather than the teen glamour queen a Hollywood production would have preferred, suitably attired in Caroline Harris’ costumes. With a background in performance, Hall is not a showbiz name, rather her background is in the theatre, and she shows the same presence as she did in The Prestige, suitably supported by Dominic West and Imelda Staunton as Robert and Maud, a schoolmaster and the matron of Rockwood, respectively.
It is a shame that the distributors chose to release this film after Hallowe’en, but perhaps it was a wise choice, as it may allow it to attain attention in its own right as a film that does not rely on shock or overt commercial considerations to achieve its aims. Preconceptions and audience expectations are played with, and it is important to question every assumption. Even down to the careful framing of the final scene, the film enjoys the ambiguity of the ghostly realm, although most of the answers are there for those who watch carefully.