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United Kingdom 2011
Directed by
Nick Murphy
102 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

The Awakening

The after-life is, almost needless to say, a popular subject with film-makers who moreover, are generally disposed to play on our fear that there is one. Perhaps this is because it makes for a better story than rationalist debunking. The Awakening belongs firmly in the affirmative camp and if it’s no more likely to convince skeptics than any of its peers it is an elegantly told tale that caters to both sides of the fence, albeit ultimately siding with the yea-sayers.

The film is set in the period immediately after The Great War when England was metaphorically haunted by the horrendous loss of life that had just occurred during the war as well as due to the 1918-19 influenza epidemic that, as the opening titles tells, claimed over a million lives in Britain. Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is a famous ghostbuster approached by schoolmaster Robert Mallory (Dominic West) to investigate an apparent spectral visitation at a private boys’ boarding school in the countryside. And so begins the see-sawing inquiry into the existence or otherwise of the walking dead.

Nick Murphy who co-wrote the screenplay with Stephen Volk is a veteran of British television making his feature debut and his skill and experience shows in this spare but sophisticated BBC production that is notable for its production design by Jon Henson, cinematography by Eduard Grau and music by Daniel Pemberton  which all conspire to make this a particularly compelling film. It is also highly likely that Murphy has studied more psychologically-inclined ghost story films such as The Others (2001). He uses many of the familiar devices of the genre like the creaky empty old house and the equally creaky old housekeeper (Imelda Staunton) but he does so with suggestive restraint, provoking us to one interpretation of events, then to the other, as the plot thickens.

In the lead Rebecca Hall is captivating as the freethinking Ms. Cathcart and she straddles the twin tendencies of resistance and susceptibility with convincing aplomb shading into growing uncertainty. Opposite her, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton both provide solid support. Even if you’re not inclined to ghost stories, it is very likely that you will enjoy the telling of this one.

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