Saturday, 19 November 2011

The Awakening Review

by Tom Dunn

Nick Murphy’s period horror, The Awakening, is a film in parts. Already facing an identity crisis through having one of the most recycled movie titles in the history of cinema, the narrative that plays out over its two hour course throws in so many superfluous details, and takes so many jarring turns, that what remains grows as confused and self-conscious as its increasingly vulnerable protagonist. Carting about such weighty themes as post-war atheism, the ‘New Woman,’ and the need to believe in something, The Awakening dabbles with these concepts like trinkets it’s in awe of, having a tinker before setting them down to go along with something it considers safer in the long run; a fairly stock horror story that has to run to catch up with – and eradicate – all that has come before.

From its opening excerpt from protagonist Florence Cathcart’s (Rebecca Hall) book on the supernatural, Murphy makes clear his desire to tackle a world cast in the shadows of the First World War, one that has been forced to painfully question the reality around it. It’s a thread continued in the film’s energetic prologue, where our self-assured ghost hunter dissembles a showy fake séance to the pain of a genuinely grieving mother. Hall’s swaggering frame, adorned with trousers and jacket, stands as a monument to early feminism that is then consistently hammered home throughout the film that it is clear Murphy’s talents lie in showing and telling. Cathcart as a result comes off as perhaps somewhat more smug than was intended, but her conspicuousness comes to fit well with the film’s main setting; an austere boys’ boarding school where Master Robert Mallory (Dominic West) and nurse maid Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton) wish to expose a supposed ghostly presence within the chilly corridors of this former stately home.

For the first half of the film, what follows is an entertaining, if at times unsubtle, pitting of progress against oppression. Our New Woman catches “ghosts” through a collection of directional thermometers, UV powders and cameras set off by tripwires, whilst also battling the stagnant air of patriarchy and bullying that fatally intoxicates the school. It’s unfortunate that this initial premise breezes by so quickly (it’s also clear that Murphy has read Dracula), as it all falls apart once this initial mystery is solved so as to unveil the true “awakening” of the title. From here on out, all of the intelligence of the film steadily dissolves, as this story of modernity gives way to a very typical tale of a woman’s descent into madness, all the more disappointing in its reduction of Florence’s status to that of a typical horror “heroine” by the film’s end – complete with an ill-fitting attempt at rape from a character whose status as a war deserter seems completely at odds with what the film really wants to explore. By the time the climactic twist is revealed, what’s occurring on screen feels as though it’s been passed over to a child to tie up – one who wanted to shoe horn in a ghost story that thus lacks the steady call for sympathy it requires.

It’s a shame, as with strong performances from Hall and West, cast in Eduard Grau’s suitably austere frame, there were the ingredients here for something really great – if the film had just stuck to its tale of boarding school hysteria. Instead, defeated by its own lofty goals, Murphy’s script dwarfs before our eyes in its performance; a mess of half-cooked ideas and influences when compared to the tight thesis it initially offers.