Monday 23 October 2017

Review: The Awakening

Rating: * * *
(15A, general release)

Paul Whitington

The problem that all ghost stories face is successfully resolving the elaborate yarns they've spun, and The Awakening is a perfect case in point. A beautifully photographed period chiller co-written and directed by Nick Murphy, this stylish and wonderfully atmospheric film ultimately collapses under the weight of its own plot and concludes with unseemly haste. But for at least 90 of its 107 minutes it sustains a formidable level of tension.

Rebecca Hall is Florence Cathcart, an author and hoax exposer who has dedicated her young life to combating the craze for spiritualism that took hold in Britain at the end of World War One. Florence will not countenance the existence of ghosts, and challenges anyone who claims to have proven they exist. She's deeply sceptical, therefore, when a man called Robert Mallory (Dominic West) turns up to tell her about a series of bizarre incidents at the rural boarding school where he teaches.

A child has died after getting lost in the grounds and the other pupils are convinced it's the work of a ghostly boy who prowls the corridors at night. When Mallory shows Florence school photos from successive years in which the ghostly child reappears, she's sure they're fakes. But she's intrigued enough to travel to the school to investigate.

She brings with her a formidable array of scientific gadgets she hopes will help her prove that the whole thing's a hoax. But the more she investigates, the more perplexed she becomes, and soon she's clinging for dear life to the certainties of her beloved science.

Filmed in the house and grounds of a rambling country estate, The Awakening builds its tension well courtesy of some clever camerawork and an array of potentially sinister supporting characters. Imelda Staunton is Mrs Hall, a bustling housekeeper who's very helpful to Florence but seems to know more than she's letting on, and Joseph Mawle plays a surly gamekeeper who's consumed with guilt about not having fought in the war.

That brutal war is a constant undercurrent in the story: the general obsession with the spirit world is not accidental, and it emerges that Florence lost a fiancé in the trenches of France. Hall and West are very good in the principal roles, and Nick Murphy, a TV director up until now, uses sweeping tracking shots and fast editing to hammer home the atmosphere of unease.

But the film gives itself far too much to do in the last 15 minutes, and a late twist muddies the water and makes you question everything that has gone before.

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