THE AWAKENING is a superbly crafted film, and for films of this ilk, execution is everything. The ilk is a horror story, the premise is an investigator (Rebecca Hall) determined to debunk fake mediums and ersatz hauntings. Its 1921 and London, like so many other places that have survived both World War I and the flu epidemic that followed, is keen on making contact with the dead and more than usually gullible when it comes to trusting in mediums. Florence Cathcart (Hall) has written a best-seller on the subject, and, more takes it upon herself to personally debunk the leading frauds of the day.
Cathcart, educated at Cambridge and determinedly independent, has her own ghosts to deal with, though they are of the psychological variety. Hers has been a life of tragedy and there is the strong sense in how she reacts to a successful debunking that, just maybe, she is looking for proof of the afterlife she claims does not exist. The inner struggle takes its toll, and so when the history master (Dominic West) of a remote boarding school shows up on her doorstep asking for help, she is curt, but not entirely disinterested. A student has been frightened to death by the schools resident ghost, or so the rumor has it, and to save the school, they very much need to prove that something else was the cause.
From here, nothing is exactly what it seems, even though the usual idioms of a tale such that this are not to be trusted, either. Cathcart brings along all the tools of her trade, and a surprisingly sophisticated collection it is for the early days of the 20th century. Also sophisticated is the intelligent way that the script, co-written by director Nick Murphy, makes as many points about the psychological hauntings of the people who call the school home, the loneliness, the grief, the cruel, relentless memories, and the simmering tensions and compassions that create a moody atmosphere that resides side-by-side with the more traditionally occult forces. It is fiendishly clever in keeping the audience only slightly less off-kilter than Cathcart herself, bringing home the failings of human perception in that it so often sees not what is actually happening, but what it needs to see happening. Logical explanations frame things that shouldnt be there, and events that cant take place, but do, at least, and maybe only, in Cathcarts mind.
The camera slowly pans through empty spaces that are hushed carefully composed, but shot at dynamic angles, music rumbles faintly, and the overweening sense of expectation and dread is set in motion, but it is Halls performance as our surrogate in this cinematic universe, that is key and it is perfection. A cool exterior masking an interior that is slowly becoming untethered by circumstances beyond her ability to process. It is an understated, finely honed performance that reveals much by using little and is all the more complex for it. West, Imelda Staunton as the guarded school matron, and Isaac Hempstead Wright as Tom, the lonely boy left alone during school break, each have their own impressive moments as people tormented by secrets too painful to see the light of day.
Memory and perception become things as mysterious as ectoplasm during the course of THE AWAKENING. Though slightly undone by a twist that demands a grain or two too much credulity on the part of the viewer, it nonetheless triumphs as a tone poem of an unsettled zeitgeist that plays cat-and-mouse with that same viewer right until the very end. Its what keeps THE AWAKENING in the realm of minor, rather that full-fledged, classic.