The Awakening: A sleeper hit

I was planning to fall asleep in The Awakening so I could make a joke about the title. In the film’s defence, I remained more or less conscious throughout.

It’s 1921, and Rebecca Hall is a spiritualist-buster, going around debunking the supernatural. People don’t always take kindly to having their mediums exposed. One of her fan letters reads, ‘May your skin be flayed from your body in the Hell you’re so sure doesn’t exist’, from an old lady in Dorset.

But she really has her lack of faith tested when she is called to Rookwood, a boarding school in the country full of pale children with creepy haircuts. The school is apparently haunted by the spirit of a boy who’s had an unfortunate CGI accident in his face.

The Awakening is very much in the tradition of recent classy sentimental horror films like The Others and The Orphanage. There are some smartly directed scares, of the kind you should expect if you insist on running around a poorly lit country house at night with an overactive soundtrack. And some more derivative ones. Although I was fascinated by a Cronenbergesque scene of bathroom voyeurism concerning a knife and an old wound. But then I’m funny like that.

Rebecca Hall’s spirited central performance is neither too smart-alecky nor too wet, making a character worth being scared on behalf of. Dominic West (the Old Etonian best known as Baltimore cop Jimmy McNulty in The Wire) and his lumpy face are rather good as the limping schoolmaster. Imelda Staunton, as the matron, is great at being caring yet creepy at the same time.

As with all good mysteries, the solution is a bit nuts. The best I can do is tell you the ending is absolutely terrible, so that when you see it you’ll find it merely very silly. And it gets so sentimental that even someone on-screen vomits. But the film doesn’t quite give up the ghost.

What lifts The Awakening is the pleasing feel of greyness, loss and loneliness. I was ready to be bored by the post-World-War-One setting. But it actually adds something. It genuinely made me think about the strangeness of a country in which a million-odd young men have just been turned into ghosts.

James Aber