“The Awakening”


I wanted to get off of the topic of belief for a bit, but the films I’ve been watching lately haven’t allowed it (understandable, to a certain extent). Seances, Spiritualism, parapsychology… these things are the name of the game these days. And honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about it.

The Awakening was suggested by my pal Carlea, and I appreciate the recommendation and, for the most part, agree with her praise of the film. It’s an atmospheric and refreshingly British supernatural thriller that toys with the idea of memory as a kind of haunting (juxtaposed, of course, with literal haunting), lingers on the notion that only psychologically damaged people can see ghosts, and, at least at first, makes heavy use of the trappings of early 20th-century Spiritualism, which of course is fascinating both from a folkloric and a more general historical perspective (it was the rage for a while, and is still around today).

The film centers on Florence Cathcart (played by Rebecca Hall), a writer in 1920s England who makes her living by smugly debunking Spiritualist practices. It opens with her tearing apart a hoax seance. This is promptly followed by a pithy lesson in functionalism by one of the participants, an old lady who clocks Florence right good and notes that Florence has never had children–the implication being, I assume, that Florence couldn’t possibly understand the real value of the seance. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hoax; it’s comforting to those left behind.

Shortly after this, Florence receives a visit from the dapper Mr. Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a macho-but-sensitive teacher at a boys’ school who comes to her for help with a ghost problem. It seems a recent death at the school has the boys all a-titter. The unfortunate student who passed away had apparently been terrorized by a ghostly encounter. Mallory and other school staff are worried that the students won’t return from their half-term break unless Florence can prove that it’s not really a ghost. 

Florence demurs at first, but of course she eventually gives in, or we wouldn’t have a movie. So off she goes with Mr. Mallory to the school in Cumbria, where she meets the creepy headmistress, Dolores Umbridge (actually Maud Hill, played by Imelda Staunton).

That’s the setup, and you can pretty well imagine how it all goes down after Florence’s arrival. Some creepy things happen, Florence attempts to capture proof of its hoaxiness. A few folks are revealed as bad guys. A love interest develops. More creepy things happen.

"So then I said, 'Don't worry, it's not contagious!' So then SHE said- Hey- ARE YOU LISTENING?!"

“So then I said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not contagious!’ So then SHE said- Hey- ARE YOU LISTENING?!”

If I sound dismissive, it’s only partly deliberate. The unfortunate fact is, the story of The Awakening is nothing to write home about. It’s the same old tale of the disbeliever (who has a deeply personal reason for insisting on disbelief) who eventually comes to believe when confronted by actually scary ghost stuff that consciously flouts her hard-nosed scientistic approach to the supernatural. I could see this film and Red Lights taking place in the same universe (albeit ninety years apart). Even I have to draw the line somewhere, and this film definitely suffers from a predictable narrative arc, to put it politely.

Worst is the ending, which features an unbearably Shyamalanesque twist. [Possible spoiler ahead] I’m getting really tired of ghost stories that play off the concept of repressed memory. Seriously, guys, please. Enough with the psychoanalysis. Repressed memories have been done too many times. The jury’s out on whether that’s even a thing. So plunder another discipline for ideas.


Fortunately the movie is saved by excellent casting, a solid script, and some great performances–especially by the lead, Rebecca Hall. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her act before, but I’m quite smitten. She breathes life (and convincing life) into what could have been a very stale role, and manages to be sympathetic in spite of the fact that it’s clear from the beginning that we SHOULD sympathize with her, because her bitchiness is clearly just a defense mechanism. Dominic West is also good, though his role doesn’t call for him to do much beyond being manly and wearing suspenders.

It also has a decent score and, for once, generally good sound editing. While there are a couple of jump scares/loud noises, they’re not as egregious as in a lot of recent horror. And god, the atmosphere. It drips with Earl Grey and treacle. In this regard The Awakening compares favorably to gothic greats like The Haunting of Hill House and The Little Stranger

One other minor point: I felt as though there were about 20 minutes missing somewhere in the middle. There is a dramatic shift in tone and narrative direction at a certain stage, and I feel like more exposition was needed. In the interest of full disclosure, I did watch the film over two nights; but my sense of this weird gap happened in the first sitting, not the second.

Anyway, The Awakening is, overall, an enjoyable and reasonably fresh take on a bunch of old, old ideas. The cast is great and the cinematography is miles beyond a lot of genre crap. If you want something terrifying, this isn’t it. But if you want something smart and beautifully atmospheric, you could do a lot worse than The Awakening.



4 thoughts on ““The Awakening”

  1. Agreed. The plot is hardly anything new, and I find the ending kind of underwhelming — you’re right that the twist is hackneyed and the “ooh, see what we did there!” ambiguity is really not that novel. But I think what I like about this, really, is that it treats this familiar story with respect. It doesn’t assume that, just because it’s a horror story, is has to be schlocky pulp. The cinematography is beautiful, the performances very strong. It behaves as if these people are actually people, rather than just stereotypes. Basically, it’s as well made, and it makes me wish that more things were equally well-made because, really, not enough are.

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