Observation: Between 1914 and 1919 war and influenza have claimed more than a million lives in Britain alone.– from Francis Cathcart’s fictional book, “Seeing Through Ghosts.”
Conclusion: This is a time for ghosts.
I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, horror is my favorite film genre. But that doesn’t stop me from occasionally getting aggravated by some of the female stereotypes that populate it. From madwomen in the attic to resilient final girls and overprotective mothers, horror is a genre that rarely deviates from the tried and true tropes that have captivated audiences for decades. Enter Florence Cathcart (played by actress Rebecca Hall) in a new British horror film titled THE AWAKENING (2012). Florence is a spunky science-minded young writer who spends her days debunking séance-holding charlatans who prey on a grief-stricken nation with promises that they can communicate with the dead.
The year is 1921 and England is recovering from a world war that killed over a million British soldiers, including a young man who Florence once loved. Con artists masquerading as spiritualists thrived during the country’s postwar recovery and routinely targeted vulnerable individuals who wanted to reunite with lost loved ones. Florence, a proud atheist who’s just as comfortable in a pair of man’s trousers as she is in a long skirt, is driven to expose these frauds and has just published a popular book about her exploits. Her professional occupation is buoyed by her unspoken desire to reconnect with phantoms from her own past and put them to rest. In simple terms, she is a ghost hunter on a personal mission. She also happens to be one of the most interesting and well-constructed horror film heroines I’ve encountered.
Florence’s mission leads her to accept a ghost-hunting job at the secluded Rookford School for Boys after she’s approached by one of the teachers (Dominic West), a handsome man with a stammer who fought in The Great War and is obviously suffering the effects of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome). He tells her the school is being haunted by a mysterious apparition that’s been spotted in photos and may be responsible for the recent death of a student. Florence is intrigued and agrees to take the job. It’s winter in England and the film is awash in smoky grays and muted greens, and as all British ghost lovers know, that’s the time when spirits are particularly restless.
When Florence arrives at the school she’s greeted by the school matron (Imelda Staunton) who admires Florence and her book. Educated working women were a rarity in 1921 and for better or worse Florence’s reputation supersedes her. To other women, Florence is someone to admire but men are threatened by her intellect and she soon finds out that most of the male teachers and school employees don’t want her there. Naturally, this conflict adds some drama to the proceedings because all of the characters in THE AWAKENING are suspect. And like a detective in a classic Old Dark House film, Florence must use her powers of deduction to find out who or what committed murder and why ghosts may or may not be haunting the dark halls of Rookford School.
Horror fans looking for a few cheap thrills and a typical tale of spooks on the loose may want to look elsewhere. This quiet, slow-moving and beautifully photographed ghost story is more interested in the very real horrors that the characters experienced during WW1 than the phantasmagorical terrors that it hints at. As I suggested above, the traumatic effects of war and personal tragedy play an important role in THE AWAKENING. And as someone who has had firsthand experience with PTSD, I found the film to be one of the smartest examples of mental anguish that I’ve seen.
Mental illness is something that’s often romanticized in Hollywood or exploited in horror films. But THE AWAKENING refuses to subject its characters to the usual histrionics and violence that has become all too typical of the genre. This is a fine-tuned psychological thriller that wears its mournful heart on its sleeve and is all the better for it. The film takes its cues from classic ghost movies such as THE INNOCENTS (1961), THE HAUNTING (1962) and THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973) as well as more recent additions to the genre including THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001), THE OTHERS (2001) and THE ORPHANAGE (2007). But what separates THE AWAKENING from the pack is its heroine; the spirited, complex and broadly defined Florence Cathcart played to perfection by Rebecca Hall.
Florence refuses to easily fit into the role of final girl, madwoman, or child protector. She doesn’t haphazardly stumble into mystery and misadventure. She purposefully goes after the monsters hiding under the bed and in the process uncovers more about herself than she bargains for. And instead of falling apart or turning to stone under pressure, she successfully confronts every bogeyman she encounters.
Nick Murphy, who has worked on many successful BBC productions such as MANOR HOUSE (2002), directed and wrote THE AWAKENING in partnership with Stephen Volk who’s probably best known to horror fans for his work on Ken Russell’s GOTHIC (1986), the groundbreaking television film GHOST WATCH (1992) and the supernatural British TV series AFTERLIFE (2005-2006) that helped make actor Andrew Lincoln (THE WALKING DEAD 2010-2018) a star. Volks’ ability to draw fear from unexpected places and give his characters an emotional depth and rich inner life makes this film particularly unique among so much modern horror that relies on easily manufactured jump scares and forgettable paper-thin protagonists. Florence Cathcart refuses to be forgotten.
When it opened in a few select theaters last summer, THE AWAKENING was quickly dismissed by many critics who found the ending too ambiguous or ambitious (take your pick), and complained about its ‘Masterpiece Theater’ atmosphere as well as its slow pacing. Like most of the best horror films I’ve seen in recent years, it didn’t seem to gain any kind of solid support from the horror community either, which is a shame. I personally found it much more effective than Hammer’s recent attempt to tell a period ghost story in THE LADY IN BLACK (2012). And although THE AWAKENING is also a period piece, it’s more expansive and far-reaching. It also takes itself very seriously allowing viewers to become easily immersed in Florence’s world.
Some critics have complained that the film is unbearably grim but I appreciate its severity at a time when self-conscious parodies of the genre such as CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012) are being hailed as great filmmaking. It might not be a flawless film but THE AWAKENING is a great-looking movie that was obviously shot with care and much attention to period detail. This atmospheric thriller contains a few surprises and some genuinely creepy moments supported by a fine cast of players. But it’s Rebecca Hall’s show and if you can’t appreciate her stellar performance as the high-minded Florence Cathcart, you won’t enjoy the film.
THE AWAKENING is available on DVD and is currently streaming on Amazon as well as Kanopy, a free streaming service for US residents with library cards.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at TCM.com in February 2013