Title: The Awakening
Director: Nick Murphy
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Dominic West
Let’s face the facts: good old school ghost stories are hard to come by these days. This year’s release of The Woman in Black proved fruitless and now The Awakening–another British horror film–attempts to make a comeback for a genre that has been slowly dying over the course of many years. Director Nick Murphy, who seems to have done work primarily in television shows and TV movies, doesn’t make much of a statement that reassures us that the genre isn’t fading away. What’s problematic is the complete lack of thrills and scares. It takes quite a lot to entertain, thrill and scare the viewers in this era, where most of us are desensitized by most entertainment, and it’s even more difficult to make it endearing and memorable. In The Awakening’s case, Murphy seems to have higher aspirations for his material and he attempts to push the genre far beyond its abilities. Even though he misses the mark, it’s admirable nonetheless. Unfortunately it makes it all the more disappointing.
Rebecca Hall plays Florence Cathcart, an atheist who makes a living out of exposing fraudulent cases of paranormal activity. She’s as adamant and steadfast in her beliefs as anyone. On top of that, she’s a woman working in an era that regards women as inferior and incapable of understanding science and mathematics. Hall plays her role well, though she’s given little to work with, aside from some vague ideas and feelings. She is doing her best to cope with an inescapable past, that seems to haunt her. The year is 1921, it’s shortly after World War I, and an outbreak of influenza is slowly eating away at the country’s core. She’s visited by Dominic West, who plays Robert Mallory. I’ve been a longtime fan of West’s work, specifically his role in the landmark TV-drama The Wire. He’s just as good here in his (vastly different) portrayal of a lonely, somewhat depressed teacher at a boarding school out in the desolate English countryside. Mallory presents her with a new case and despite her reservations, she takes it on for her own reasons.
With The Woman in Black, James Watkins relied heavily on jump scares. Those aren’t exactly original, nor do they require a great deal of skill, since it’s all reactionary. Awakening lacks even that. Putting it simply, it just isn’t scary. Murphy has high ambitions for his film, where he attempts to paint a portrait of a period of English history that’s fraught with social problems, from disease to a strong sense of misogyny. But it’s sort of a mess of ideas, as opposed to a film dedicated to its craft of creating dread and fear in the audience. While it’s pleasant to see someone working outside of the norm of just looking for a few cheap thrills, he has somehow forgotten the purpose of a horror movie. In the closing scenes it’s especially obvious. Instead of allowing us to feel the anxiety and fear of what is happening, Murphy leads us by the hand with a 15-minute explanation of what is going on. There’s nothing unnerving about that.
Clumsy and talky, The Awakening is an utter failure as a genre piece and as anything else, it’s a clutter of half-thought through ideas about the past and the present. The Woman in Black wasn’t successful, either, but it had a lot of technical merits going for it. Sometimes it’s not so bad working within a genre, it tends to pay off occasionally. Halfway through, I was reminded of The Innocents by Jack Clayton. Based on the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, it’s intelligent, unnerving and technically amazing. All of the other deeper, more meaningful subtext is left as just that: subtext. It is not brought to the service for any kind of pretentious purpose. It does not insist on itself, nor does it lead us by the hand when there’s something we may not understand immediately. Finally, it does not over-complicate itself with convoluted plot-points. It’s first and foremost a horror film, through and through, and it never forgets that.