This is a wonderfully creepy and very intelligent ghost story from first-time feature film director Nick Murphy. Backed by the BBC and French film giants StudioCanal, it’s yet another example of how exciting, vibrant and varied British filmmaking is at this moment in time. The story is reminiscent of other similar chillers, such as The Others and The Orphanage. However, The Awakening stands as a terrific film in its own right thanks to an intelligent and inventive screenplay, and a superb central performance from Rebecca Hall.
Set in 1921, Hall plays a ghost hunter who has written books on the subject of sixth-sense trickery and fake séances. She exposes frauds to prove that the idea of spirits walking the earth is nothing short of fantasy. When a school teacher (Dominic West) comes to ask for her help, she is at first doubtful that his tale of a school haunted by the ghost of a dead pupil is worth her time. But after some thought she accepts the challenge and visits the grand-house-turned-boarding-school to prove to the teachers, the matron (Imelda Staunton) and herself that the ghostly figure seen flitting about in the night is nothing but a naughty school boy.
It goes without saying that there is far more going on in this school than just childish tricks and games, and as the film moves swiftly on into the realms of gothic horror, we are treated to many jump moments that would unsettle even the more experienced terror-seekers. Thankfully, characterisation and human emotion aren’t sacrificed for cheap scares, and the final twist in the tale is beautifully played out and more than a little heartbreaking.
Nick Murphy, who is well-known in the world of television for his documentaries and mini-series Occupation, perfectly evokes an uneasy, quietly menacing tension. Recognition must also be given to Spanish cinematographer Eduard Grau for his eerie and mesmerizingly bleak vision of post-WWI Britain.
Some will pick holes in the plot, particularly the slightly hurried final revelation, but for me The Awakening is one of the year’s most interesting movies. It is both an artistic feast of talent, and a heart-poundingly tense genre piece. I can’t wait to see it again.
The Awakening (2011), directed by Nick Murphy, is distributed by StudioCanal, certificate 15.