[Review] – The Awakening

6 Sep

Title: The Awakening
Year: 2012
Director: Nick Murphy
Writers: Stephen Volk and Nick Murphy
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton
MPAA Rating: R, some violence and sexuality/nudity
Runtime: 107 min
IMDb Rating: 6.4
Rotten Tomatoes: 60%
Metacritic: 53

Let me start by saying that I think Rebecca Hall is the real deal. I first saw her in Christopher Nolan‘s The Prestige, were she had a small role, but, like most, the first time I really took notice of her was in Woody Allen‘s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, in which she played one of the three leads and got herself a Golden Globe nomination in the process. I loved what she did in that film, I loved her performance, I loved the aura she exuded and I, of course, thought she was pretty gorgeous.

In the four years that have followed that terrific film Ms. Hall has been churning out great performances; she was part of the ensemble in Frost/Nixon, was in Nicole Holofcener‘s terrific Please Give and, perhaps most noticeably, was in Ben Affleck‘s sensational The Town, a film I adore. I like all of the choices she makes, working with very talented people and giving really neat performances, but I just feel like she should just be a much bigger name based on her talents (and looks, too), something that may finally be accomplished next year when she stars in the hugely-anticipated Iron Man 3.

First, though, there’s The Awakening, a British horror film set in early 1920’s England in which she plays the lead role. That role is that of Florence Cathcart, an author who publishes books that expose supernatural events as nothing but hoaxes, something that she took up after the death of her fiancé in World War I, and that’s allowed her to help the police in a few cases. Then she meets Robert, a teacher from a nearby all-boys boarding school played by Dominic West who approaches her to help him out with claims from students about seeing the ghost of a recently deceased classmate of theirs.

The sightings at first are seen as a prank, and as you might imagine a slight attraction between Robert and Florence starts developing, but then as the school closes up for the weekend, and Florence is left alone there with Robert, the housekeeper played by Imelda Staunton, and a little orphan boy, she starts finding out some kooky stuff. When I first read what it was about and saw the trailer and such, I was unimpressed, thought it would be a typically predictable horror film, but then I saw it and, while by no means a terrific entry into the genre, I thought The Awakening had some really neat things going for it.

What I loved the most about it is that the parts in which the film achieved its greatest successes weren’t so much the genre moments with the scares and chills and whatnot, but rather they were the ones anchored to real human emotions. Don’t get me wrong, the film also manages a few nice scares, mostly because the creepy boarding school is shot super well by Eduard Grau (who also did the cinematography on the great Buried from a couple years ago), but the human stuff is the best part of this film.

It’s the best part because, like in other supernatural horror films such as The Others, it manages to be about mourning and how people deal with death, and it’s a really neat exploration of that side of things. Not to spoil things or anything, but there’s indeed a big final twist at the end, which, even though I thought it was rather nicely executed, I felt kind of cheapened the film just a little bit, it made it too conventional and generic. Still though, The Awakening does a fantastic job at showing this melancholia experienced by an entire nation that, between WWI and the influenza outbreak, experienced more than its fair share of death.

The actors also do a very good job. Ms. Hall like I’ve said is an actress I’m really fond of, and even though this isn’t the best film she’s been in, at least she gets a leading role, and one that’s actually quite complex, this smart woman who comes off as arrogant at first but then you find out she’s only guarding herself from past episodes in her life. Dominic West does a good job at embodying this sense of loss the whole country’s experiencing, and then Imelda Staunton does her usual great job with her gravitas-charged performance. Good British actors elevate this from a film that would normally cause you to just shrug it off with a “whatever” into one that’s actually decent.

For that you should be thankful. Most times when actresses such as Ms. Hall sign up for horror flicks I’m scared because nine times out of ten they won’t be worth their time, and yet here director Nick Murphy asks more of her than just simply looking in horror and screaming, he asks her to actually act and provides a great atmosphere for her. I mean, it’s not a hugely challenging role or a movie that made her stretch like crazy, but it’s exponentially bigger and better than what she would have otherwise gotten from an average horror flick.

I said the final twist at the end didn’t do it for me, and that’s true; I felt it was a bit of a letdown. Not just because it borrowed from what we’ve seen a handful of other films do in the past with that final scene, and not just because it was kind of ambiguous about what really happened right at the end (which I actually sort of liked). I just felt that all the deep stuff about the longing and mourning and survivor’s guilt this one had explored was overshadowed at the end by that more “flashy” kind of ending this one got. Still, this is better than your average ghost story flick, and Rebecca Hall continues to give us something to talk about.

Grade: B-

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