Ghostbusting with gravity
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, August 17, 2012
The mainstream-movie creed abhors murderers, terrorists and most extraterrestrials, but nothing affronts it more than skeptics. So it’s clear that the protagonist of “The Awakening” will be punished severely as soon she opens the film by busting up a seance. How dare Florence (Rebecca Hall) challenge fantasy-peddlers who make good money by scaring the rubes?
Florence lives in 1921 London, after World War I and a flu epidemic killed millions worldwide. “This is a time for ghosts,” the movie’s introduction portentously announces. Florence doesn’t agree, and she has become something of a celebrity as a debunker.
She’s haunted in her own way, of course; she lost her true love in the war. But that’s just part of Florence’s motivation. “The Awakening” takes its time introducing all of the specters that torment the young woman. Eventually, Florence’s tangled, outlandish back story will be revealed.
Immediately after exposing the seance, Florence is visited by a stuttering, war-scarred teacher, Robert (Dominic West). He has been sent, somewhat reluctantly, to bring her to a Lake District boys school where a student recently died. Apparently, the student was frightened to death by the apparition of a boy who was slain in the building years before.
Drained by her ghostbusting, Florence declines. In the next scene, she’s taking a train north. That’s the kind of rigorously predictable undertaking this is.
At the school, Florence meets the matron, Maud (Imelda Staunton), an admirer. With scientific gear and outlook, Florence quickly dispels the mystery of the dead student. But she becomes convinced that there are deeper bewilderments to be plumbed. So she stays during a school break, when her only companions in the vast, shadowy building are Robert, Maud, an ominous groundskeeper (Joseph Mawle) and a boy (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) whose parents are said to be in India. Every one of these characters has a dark secret, although some are more supernatural than others.
“The Awakening” is nonsense, but with its posh British cast and colors drained to near-gray, it’s very solemn nonsense. Director and co-writer Nick Murphy gravely invokes the trauma of the Great War, as well as the agony of boarding schools where every infraction was answered with the sting of the teacher’s cane.
Taking a break from playing Yanks in such movies as “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” Hall renders Florence about as believable as the script will allow. But her character’s personal history is as bloody ridiculous as it is gory. And once the movie starts to chasten her, it just can’t stop. Both physical and psychological, her awakening is as harshly unenlightening as a blow to a schoolboy’s knuckles.
Contains violence, partial nudity and sexuality.