“The Awakening” is an unexpected treat—a thoroughly engaging and smart horror flick that keeps you on edge, although it collapses under its own weight in the last 20 minutes. Not to say the film’s conclusion will totally obliterate your enjoyment—as the end of this spring’s “Cabin in the Woods” unfortunately did for me—but it is more or less dissatisfying after such a fantastically enjoyable scare fest.
Set in 1921 England, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is a successful author who tirelessly advocates the importance of cold, hard facts and works to debunk the myths of ghosts. She is hired by Robert Malory (Dominic West) to investigate the death of a young boy at a countryside mansion-turned-boarding school, where students insist that a ghost lurks in the corridors. What seems like a calculated, tired premise is invigorated in “The Awakening,” as we get a glimpse into the old-time practices regarding supernatural phenomena from the perspective of a modern woman in a bygone era.
Hall has entranced us in supporting roles in Ben Affleck’s “The Town” and Woody Allen’s “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” but finally gets the chance to carry a movie entirely on her shoulders. She does so with unmistakable ease and invests us so deeply into her character’s struggle that we hold on even in the film’s more ridiculous moments. It is rare to see such a strong performance in a horror flick, and in the hands of a less-capable actress, “The Awakening” could have easily landed with a thud.
The movie is distinctive in that it does not rely on cheap thrills to keep the audience interested, but is actually a relatively quiet film. Those that quench for constant action need not bother checking this one out, as director Nick Murphy and Stephen Volk have written an especially “talky” film for the horror genre. Regardless, the story moves along at a brisk pace and is enthralling enough to avoid tedious banter.
When the film inches closer to its conclusion is when the problems start to become apparent. Minor plot holes, quick camera cuts and a general confusion of what is actually going on cloud a very murky ending. We are not left puzzling over deep, enigmatic questions about the nature of belief or sorrow, but are more than likely asking, “Wait…what just happened?” The last scene is especially hasty and I’m still not exactly sure what took place. And are we really supposed to believe that Florence and Robert would make love immediately after one of the movie’s most shocking plot twists?
Aside from Hall’s performance, the film’s strongest asset is its cinematography, which I believe is some of the most inventive that I have seen this year. Fresh off his work on “A Single Man” and “Buried,” Edward Grau appears to be one of the most promising cinematographers working in the industry, and constantly gives us a new way of seeing the world. Imaginative shots through a magnifying glass, a crack in a bathroom wall and a gas lamp’s reflection at a séance all come to mind when reminiscing on the cinematic highlights. Although the English landscape and melancholy manor may be as dreary as they come, Grau ensures that we never find our eyes wandering astray.
“The Awakening” is well worth your time and money to see, even if the unsatisfactory ending leaves you feeling lukewarm. This is not your average scary movie, with senseless killers wielding their machetes and big-bosomed ladies running around aimlessly (no offense, Elizabeth Olsen). “The Awakening” is a refreshing take on your run-of-the-mill ghost story, and will surely appease even the most skeptical of filmgoers.