Universal // 2011 // 108 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // February 4th, 2013
"I don't think there's a place on earth where people understand loneliness better than here."
Arguments about faith and reason are nothing new. You don't even have to wade into the murky waters of religious debate to find a sharp divide between people who believe and people who don't. There is a bit of both in the story of Harry Houdini, the famed magician and escape artist who turned his attention to the world of spiritualists and mediums after the death of his mother. Looking for someone who could help him contact her in the afterlife, he found only charlatans using cheap stage tricks to profit from grief. After several such encounters, he changed his goal from seeking out genuine mediums to debunking them as frauds. It became a kind of crusade. He wrote a book about his efforts, created a stage show that baited his prey with a cash prize if he could not reproduce their effects, and gave away their secrets to anyone who would listen. Even so, Houdini left open the possibility for belief. He and his wife, Bess, devised a secret code so that he might be able to communicate with her from beyond the grave. After his death, she carried on his search for a true medium, finally giving up after ten years.
Television writer/director Nick Murphy explores the place between science and superstition in his first feature film, The Awakening -- a ghost story set in a 1920s English boarding school. His heroine, Florence Cartwright (Rebecca Hall, The Prestige), is a noted ghost hunter and author who doesn't believe in spooks. We first meet her in a London seance, posing as a participant before revealing the fraud to the police and the grieving mother hoping to contact her dead child. The police are happy to cart off the con man. The mother hauls off and slaps Florence. Sometimes people would rather believe a comforting lie than be confronted with the truth.
Florence understands that feeling well. Although she has made a career out of exposing the human causes of supernatural events, she has good reason to want there to be more than this life -- something to do with a photograph of a soldier and a cigarette case. The job leaves her feeling empty and tired, so when she is approached by a teacher named Robert Malory (Dominic West, John Carter) who wants her to investigate a possible haunting at his boarding school, she turns him down. Something about the plight of the children moves her, however, and she accompanies Mr. Malory to the school, where she hears a story about a spectral boy who was murdered when the school was still a private house. The ghost appears from time to time, scaring the students. On a recent occasion, scaring one boy to death. As the students head home for holiday break, Miss Cartwright sets about solving the case, with the help of Malory, housekeeper Maud (Imelda Staunton, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), and an orphan named Tom (Isaac Hempstead Wright, Game of Thrones), who has nowhere else to go for break.
The Awakening takes us through Miss Cartwright's investigation of the murder and the haunting, with special focus on the way she processes the evidence. Armed with newfangled gizmos, meters, and a battery-powered lightbulb that takes the place of the standard horror movie flashlight, she is a model of scientific inquiry even if her methods are more Egon Spengler than Eugene Vidocq. When Florence fights back the shadows with a bare electric bulb, you feel old superstitions burn away in the cold light of progress. The film is at its best in these moments, when it balances on the tipping point between myth and modern thinking. Like most ghost stories, it works while mystery remains. Once the jump scares are played out and the twist is revealed -- because there has to be a twist -- it's far less compelling.
The Awakening's last act is every bad horror finale, with loud noises, quick camera moves, and leaps of logic. The things that make Florence a complex character dissipate the more the film's balance tips in favor of the unearthly. It's fine for a ghost story to come down on one side, as long as the ghost remains partly in shadow -- watch The Lady in Black if you want to see it done right. By the time the film is over, Murphy has explained everything away, turning an atmospheric horror film into a pedestrian murder mystery. The images of past violence are too vivid. Where The Shining offered glimpses of terrifying tableaus, The Awakening shows every last detail of the one event that set the whole thing in motion. It's self-contained, limited to a few characters connected by coincidence. The story is constructed in a way that rewards a second viewing, with an ending that preserves some of the mystery, but once you know how all the pieces fit together there's not much reason to go back.
Whatever the film's ghostly issues, the problems don't extend to the living. The Awakening brings the full weight of great British acting to the main roles, in particular the core trio of Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, and Imelda Staunton. West might be better known in America for his role in The Wire, but he is an English gentleman here, with a stiff upper lip and secret guilt about surviving the war when fellow soldiers did not. Murphy could have done more with the character than contrive a romance between him and Hall, but he does the best with the material he is given. Staunton gives a restrained performance as matronly Maud. Despite her staff status, she is the person most in control as things go downhill. The heavy lifting, though, is on Hall. Without a strong actress able to communicate emotions nonverbally, the film would not work. She is asked to act in several different movies over the course of the story, from the BBC period drama at the beginning to the full-on horror ending. The final film may be a mess, but the actors are certainly not to blame.
The Awakening arrives on Blu-ray in the States courtesy of Universal, with a detailed, if drab, 1080p 2.35:1 transfer. Murphy captures the post-war malaise in a palette of greys and blues. Shadows are, naturally, a big part of the visual design. It's just too bad that's where the details get lost. Overall, it feels a hair better than a BBC TV movie. It's cinematic, but on a budget. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix has a bit more depth, with clever and effective use of surround effects to amplify the scares.
One of the most impressive things about the disc is the nearly two and a half hours of bonus features. There are seven deleted scenes with introductions for each by Murphy, an extended interview with the director, a making-of piece, and three featurettes: "A Time for Ghosts," "Anatomy of a Scene: Florence and the lake," and "Anatomy of a SCREAM."
There is a fascinating film to be made about the spiritualist craze in post-war Britain, at the crossroads of science and myth. The Awakening starts as that movie, as Florence Cartwright embodies the hopeful skepticism that consumed Houdini's later years. When the film focuses on her struggle, it is about something more than a simple haunting in a spooky house. Partway through the movie, however, Murphy abandons those ideas in favor of a simple ghost story with an unsatisfying twist. The performances carry the film to the finish line, but the material can't stand up to the cold light of logic.
Waking up is hard to do.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site