2011’s “The Awakening” is a horror film for people who think “Downton Abbey” would be better if it had a few ghosts running around. If you’re looking for a straight horror movie, this film doesn’t bring much originality to the genre, and it has its share of flaws. If you’re okay sitting through a very good period drama with great performances and a few scares, however, you could do a lot worse.
The movie stars Rebecca Hall (from “The Town” among other films) who absolutely shines as Florence Cathcart, a young woman in 1921 England. The country is still ravaged from World War I, and Cathcart spends her days debunking charlatans and con artists who claim to be able to speak to the dead (the first five minutes were great as we see her exposing and breaking up a sham séance). She carries herself as a scientist and more than once in the film we see her pull out a number of old-timey contraptions meant to hunt ghosts. Like much of the country she also was affected by the war, having lost a former lover, and it’s clear she hasn’t gotten over him.
Enter Robert Mallory (played by Dominic West), headmaster from a boy’s boarding school who enlists Cathcart to expose a “ghost” in the school that has literally scared one boy to death. She arrives at the school and meets the governess Maud (played by veteran actress Imelda Staunton) who cares for the boys. Cathcart also gets to know one boy in particular, Thomas (played by Isaac Hempstead Wright). After only a couple days, Cathcart exposes the student acting as the ghost. Or does she? Strange things continue to happen, things Cathcart can’t explain despite her scientific backing. Ultimately her beliefs are challenged.
To discuss more of the plot would be to risk spoiling. I will say that “The Awakening” winds down to a twist ending that leaves something to be desired. It’s far-fetched and relies on some leaps in logic given what we’ve seen before. By contrast, the first half of the film is extremely strong, as we are introduced to these characters and see the scars each of them carry from the war (some psychological, some very physical). One of the strongest scenes in the movie has nothing to do with the possible ghost at the school but rather shows schoolmaster Mallory alone in a room, shaking and reeling from memories of the trench battles.
“The Awakening” also benefits from extremely strong performances. Beginning with Hall and Mallory (from TV’s “The Wire”), every actor in the film treats the material with respect, and gives convincing performances.
You’ll notice I haven’t spoken much of the horror in “The Awakening.” While there are a few scares here (most having to do with a dollhouse, just trust me on this one), they take a backseat to the drama. The ghost story here is very similar to movies like “The Others” and “The Devil’s Backbone.” In fact, if all you want is a strong ghost story, I would recommend either of those movies over “The Awakening.” But if you are in the mood for a strong British period piece that just happens to involve a ghost, take a chance with “The Awakening.”