“Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean that you forget about them.”
The Awakening is my favourite type of “scary” movie because it’s not that terrifying and things don’t jump out at you too often, but it’s a psychological character study and deeply atmospheric.
Florence Cathcart is a Cambridge-educated ghost debunker in post WWI-era England, where spiritualism has taken hold of many. But when a teacher named Mallory at a remote boarding school seeks her out because he thinks they have a real ghost that has literally scared a pupil to death, she takes the case (probably in no small part due to his handsome features). She appears to solve the case, but just as she’s about to leave, she sees something she can’t explain. And she has to understand it, or, as she says: “I can’t live with the fear.”
The atmosphere is palpably creepy in the remote, lonely boarding school. The large house still has echoes of the family mansion it used to be in its grand rooms and sweeping staircases where footsteps echo. Now it is filled with sombre-faced little boys who still look and act much the same as the boys of past generations did–boys who grew up to die in the war. As the present-day watcher, it’s sad, as you know that WWII is in these little boys’ future.
The film does have many often-done elements of a period ghost story, but that’s what I like about it. Eerie empty boarding houses, fog and dense trees, echoing sounds and a ghostly boy with a twisted face, a mysteriously moving doll house and dolls that echo the character’s actions, and figures seen out of the corner of people’s eyes.
The characters are similarly well-depicted. I loved how no-nonsense and self-assured Florence is at the start, as it contrasts with her hysteria, fear and possible madness later on by what she cannot rationalise. She’s armed with 1920s ghostbusting equipment–bells at ankle-height, powder on newspaper to catch the footprints of would-be ghosts, cameras and trip-wires and instruments to measure temperatures and ghostly presence. When all the students go home for half-term but one, the story focuses on those left behind–Mallory, Maud, the housekeeper and ardent fan of Florence, the groundskeeper who dodged the war, and the little pupil whose parents can’t take him home, Tom.
Each character is lonely and haunted by what they have lost. There’s only one ghost in the story, but every character is battling many ghosts and living in the past. No one can let go and move on. As the story progresses, each character is also suspect. I’m usually quite good at guessing how these films go, but this one surprised me–perhaps because I’d read nothing about it and not seen the trailer.
Judging by several other reviews online, many disliked the ending. I think people are being too harsh; it’s more complicated than some realize. Yes, there’s a main reveal that’s been done before, but then it’s further turned on its head in the coda and the ending is ambiguous.
It’s definitely one of the best ghost films I’ve seen. BBC does it justice. I’d happily watch it again to see the hints I should have seen the first time around.
If you’ve seen it, what are your thoughts?