Rebecca Hall takes on the supernatural in The Awakening, a surprisingly effective, atmospheric ghost story set in England shortly after the first World War.
Hall plays Florence Cathcart, a professional skeptic who’s become famous for debunking supernatural phenomena and exposing charlatans in England in the wake of the war and the Influenza Epidemic. The film’s opening title—a quote from the fictional Florence—states “this is a time for ghosts.”
And indeed it is, as Florence is summoned by Robert Mallory, a teacher from a boys’ boarding school, to investigate reports that one of the students died after seeing a ghost. Florence arrives and eventually solves the mystery of the boy’s apparent accidental death due to a teacher’s negligence. Florence then prepares to leave, but sees things that compel her to stay and investigate further.
There are a lot of things going on in The Awakening, and almost all of them work. First and foremost is Rebecca Hall’s performance as Florence, a skeptic who bears both literal and figurative scars—the origins of the scar on Florence’s shoulder are left shrouded in mystery until the movie’s climax.
Hall’s Florence is both emotionally and psychologically fragile, as well as brittle, determined, and resilient. Florence is no damsel in distress either, though; the film often draws the audience’s attention to Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting Judith Slaying Holofernes in a few key scenes. The painting depicts Judith and a maidservant beheading the Assyrian general, Holofernes. Like Judtih, Florence is undoubtedly the hero of this tale.
Another thing the movie does quite well is depict the psychological trauma and loss following the war. Several characters suffer immense survivor’s guilt and struggle with the war, death, and its aftermath. Everyone in this movie is haunted by ghosts, real and imagined.
The best thing about this movie is it never really falls back on tired horror movie clichés and tropes, such as the damsel in distress. It doesn’t ever strip away Florence’s agency or punish her for her mistakes or choices. She’s flawed, yes, and makes mistakes, but she isn’t condemned by the narrative for them.
There were a couple areas I wasn’t completely on board with, particularly a scene where Florence is attacked and almost raped, and a slightly uneven finale.
The film does a fine job conveying how horrific and despicable the attack on Florence is, but it felt somewhat unnecessary. At least Florence saves herself and dispatches her attacker, sending him to a bloody end. Mallory, her lover, disposes of the body after the fact.
As for the finale, a lot has to be revealed and some of it feels clumsy, though the film’s denouement is strong and more than makes up for the occasional clunkiness of the climax.
Rebecca Hall is the star of the cast, turning in a fabulous, nuanced performance, with Dominic West and Imelda Staunton strong in their in supporting roles. Game of Thrones‘ Isaac Hempstead-West also has a pivotal role as young Tom.
The Awakening was directed by Nick Murphy and came out in 2011.