London in 1921 and the dreadful effects of The Great War are still very much being felt around the world, which with so many dead has given a renewed interest to spiritualism. But one woman, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), has taken the role of crusader against what she sees as a bunch of charlatans: the mediums who claim to contact the spirit world and allow mortals to speak with their long gone loved ones. Florence has written a bestselling book on the subject, but her more active part in exposing fraud does not go down well with everyone...
The Awakening, not to be confused with the Charlton Heston horror movie of the eighties, was a film which attempted to cash in on the fresh interest in all things ghostly which in a way had been ushered in by the television drama Ghostwatch, a sensation in its day for, among other things, proving that there were many people out there all too willing to believe in phantoms. It was no coincidence then to see director Nick Murphy sharing a writing credit here with the author of that influential small screen effort, Stephen Volk, although this was more in the vein of Volk's successful Saturday night spook series Afterlife.
That said, it ostensibly took on the subject from the other side of the coin, not from the reluctant psychic angle but from the enthusiastic sceptic's point of view, and for the first forty-five minutes this shaped up to be a neat little mystery which gave room for each argument for and against the supernatural, refreshingly balanced so that the believers could have their unanswered questions and the non-believers could see the rational explanation behind it all. Alas, such intriguing material approached in such an absorbing fashion was not something that could last, and as if someone had said "You can't have a horror movie that appeals to both ends of the spectrum!" it all went a bit silly thereafter.
Fair enough, there can be few who accepted this sort of tale would not put the wind up the paranormal investigator, especially when she is so rigidly set in her ways, but the way this played out wasn't half overextended to the point of wasting whatever good faith it had begun with: did we really need a gratuitous sex scene? Or one of those by now clichéd quick succession of flashbacks to have us reassess what had gone before now we were in possession of a new piece of the puzzle? The trouble was, there was a very decent ghost story that could have been drawn from this groundwork, it's just that the filmmakers chose to plump for sensation (LOUD MUSIC courtesy of Daniel Pemberton overemphasising every fright) over a nice, creepy atmosphere.
What happens is that Florence gets a new case to investigate at a boy's school way out in the countryside in a converted mansion house. A child was murdered there some years before the war, and some of the pupils claim to be able to see his ghost, which has recently led to tragedy with one asthmatic boy being scared to death, apparently. Our heroine, played by Hall as a modern twenty-first century woman in a stuffy early twentieth century world, is soon setting up her spook-hunting equipment with confidence it is a real live human being she will uncover as the prank-playing culprit, but has she access to the whole story? Also appearing were Dominic West as the headmaster, uptight but a sympathetic presence, and the housekeeper Imelda Staunton, who you just know from her first appearance has something she's not telling Florence. But what that was turned out to be so overwrought it was a pity they decided to go such a route, when to all indications a more subtle chiller would have been more successfully achieved by the creators.