The modest but irrefutable pleasure of taking in the aesthetic of Nick Murphy’s The Awakening, credit for which is at least partially due to the talented DP Eduard Grau, offers little in the way of reward for slogging through the film’s rigidly by-the-books structure and storytelling. Even the appearance of the luminous Rebecca Hall, as a scientific-minded debunker of fantastical occurrences, fails to infuse the story with any sort of genuine dread or bring anything remotely unique or personal to this abysmal ghost story. That is, of course, unless you find the momentary scene of Hall pleasuring herself in the bathtub particularly haunting, which you very well might.
In the aftermath of the Great War, there have been reports of ghosts haunting the halls of a boarding school in the British countryside, spurring owners and staff to seek out the expertise of the Holmes-like Florence Cathcart (Hall), investigator of counterfeit paranormal sightings and schemes. The school’s headmaster, Mr. Mallory (Dominic West), rebukes Cathcart’s brazen atheism and her insistence that there’s a culprit behind the specters, that the paranormal activity is in fact just an elaborate, creative hoax. But as her time at the school extends, and more than a few sudden, excited “sightings” of ghost children occur, her certainty begins to waver.
Forgiving the film’s flippantly anti-secular, anti-science attitude, it nonetheless remains a wasteful, largely risible endeavor, even as it attempts to reach for something evocative and elemental. There are, for instance, few moments when the film could be accused of using overly stylized ghosts as a scare tactic. In their place, however, are those sudden, loud shock-scares whose only use is to mechanize fear so that Murphy isn’t put in the position of having to create genuinely haunting images. The tone is stiff and stifled, and the script lays little groundwork for a substantial view of grief and resentment in the wake of World War I, a theme the film is intermittently moved to address with minimal fascination.
It’s a suspicious tactic, as the film would have little worth beyond its refined aesthetic and the pleasure of watching Hall act, if not for the presumed effects of these momentary gusts of history and its horrors. Ultimately, the tactic is utterly moot, and by the time Murphy springs his inevitable twist-laden trap, even the film’s positive elements have grown musty. We are, indeed, in a similar realm as Tim Burton’s extravagantly wild Sleepy Hollow, but Murphy expresses no recognizable, personal style, and his insistence on the grim seriousness of his pulpy premise corrodes the pace of the narrative. The Awakening, ironically, spends a great amount of time stressing the importance of the uncertain and the magical against science, and yet takes pains to ensure that the story feel like laborious toil rather than a trip through the dark side of the ethereal.