A disturbing fact around the number of dead in England at the turn of the twentieth century firstly appears before the quote and the visuals surrounding it bleed into the screen and the musical score intensifies. The setting has been described as vital by director Nick Murphy, and it is here that we find ourselves in post-World War one England in 1921.
We follow protagonist Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), an author and debunking sleuth of all things supernatural, her reputation precedes her as the film opens with her in her element, listening in on a living room filled with curios, artifacts of the time, during a very atmospheric seance. She is immediately billed as a bright, learned and rational thinker who after being approached by a boarding school headmaster and former World War one soldier Robert Mallory (Dominic West) agrees to travel to the countryside with him to investigate rumors of an apparent haunting, a spectral post-war student whose distorted face and shadowy image appears in each school photo year after year.
What motivates her and the pain she holds inside come spilling out into the open, as just when she thinks she has debunked the ghost theory, she has a chilling spectral encounter which defies all her beliefs.
The Awakening, when boiled down is an impressive cross-genre chamber piece, set mostly within the abandoned confines of this glorious post-mansion boarding school in the gloomy forest. Florence's initial investigation occurs when the teaching period is still in effect. Here she witnesses the oppressive and punishing nature of the classes being taught, from on-the-spot caning to harassment. She also witnesses Robert's secret and ungainly war scar by prying on him through a peep hole in the wall as he prepares a bath. Before this she is greeted by the matron Maud (Imelda Staunton) who seems obsessed with her and the mousy Tom (Isaac Hempstead Wright), the only student who stays behind during school holidays, the rest of the school is picked up by what family remains for them, having experienced substantial loss due to the war, which is frequently referenced and channeled through Robert, who has ghosts of his own past to contend with.
Although these scenes have no particular rhyme or reason to them, there is significant investment in persevering without initially worrying about the who or the why. The film really begins to take shape during this holiday period. The already overbearing building takes on a sinister form, impressively during daylight which is when most of the film and its subsequent scares, thrills and moments of tension occur, a bold move by the director, but one that pays off.
The period-piece and the supernatural are certainly a sublime combination, one that is not fully realized in The Awakening, but appreciated nonetheless. Florence undergoes all sorts of grave encounters, all of them tropes from previous versions of the skeptic to believer mold. She has an assortment of impressive gizmos that she sets up to capture the ghost in action. Between talking to and realizing Robert's pain and sympathizing with the lonely and antisocial Tom, Florence attempts to rationalize the strange goings on in the house and the bizarre reactions her ghost tracking instruments give off.
Two particular stand out scenes of potential haunting are a cat and mouse game between her and the figure and a very impressive and ominous doll house, structured exactly like the boarding school and discovered in an otherwise empty room upstairs. The figures inside the windows of this doll house she peeks in reveals some very disturbing information about the predicament, and without spoiling it, ties up all the ghostly encounters she has, including a harrowing but brief and very out of place scene with her and the creep groundskeeper. Throughout her ordeal the constant otherworldly visual cues are suddenly given meaning and sense and it is an impressive sequence the director succeeds at portraying and is a wholly satisfying conclusion that improves upon this tried and true formula for supernatural mystery.
Coming from a television background Nick Murphy imbues The Awakening with similar aesthetics, particularly the structure of the film and the majority of the set pieces that make everything outside of them feel sparse and unrealistic. The interior design and costume also does not convincingly portray the era. The score is at times very effective and ominous but during the less tense scenes it lets the film down as it is too over the top and distracting.
Regarding the transfer of the Blu-ray itself, the murky, ghostly subdued color palettes really add to the mood of this mysterious setting, everything is incredibly clear, particularly the feeling of isolation the sharp and crisp visuals accentuate by focusing on the cold empty and large spaces within the school. Unfortunately some night scenes are too grainy, although it does sort of add to the feel of the otherworldly place.
The extras on the disc are plentiful, with full commentary by the director, deleted scenes with introductions from the director and a few featurettes focusing on key scenes and a making-of all of which are quite lengthy. Strangely I advise you avoid the extras until days after you have seen the film. Not because they spoil any of the surprises in the film, but because the intentions of this very talkative director are so crystal clear but unfortunately his lofty ambitions for what this movie is trying to portray almost fail completely. To not read the film the way he envisioned provides a much better viewing experience as Florence's personal mystery culminating in a great ending is a more subjective device rather than the objective greater world suffering Murphy envisions.
The Awakening is overall a cracking mystery, set in the confines of a very interesting and atmospheric locale inhabited by questionable people that help Florence to unearth more than she bargains for. Rebecca Hall is incredible and really looks the part for this period and role and Dominic and Imelda provide great support until the final satisfying twist in the tale emerges.