The Awakening

You CAN go home again
Nick Murphy
Rebecca Hall, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Isaac Hempstead Wright
The Setup: 
Ghost debunker is brought in to investigate a lingering ghost.

There were two reasons I was interested in this. One, it looked very much in the vein of the recent Woman in Black, which holds up very well in memory, and two, it stars the delightful Rebecca Hall, who has been moving and intelligent in everything she's been in, including Vicky Christina Barcelona. Turns out to be much more low-key and complex than Woman in Black--a comparative thrill ride--and I was super into it until the last moments, where the complexity flies off the charts and you won't be able to understand what you're seeing until you pick it apart later.

We open with a title telling us that the flu epidemic has just passed, killing lots of people and creating a ton of ghosts. That turns out to have nothing to do with anything. It is 1921, and Rebecca is Florence Cathcart, debunker of spiritualists preying on the yearning of the grieving. She is first seen exposing a phony seance and bringing the perpetrators to justice, which earns her a rebuke from the mother of the deceased, who wants to believe, even if it's false. She slaps Florence and says "You've never had a child, have you? Of course you haven't."

Once home, Florence is visited by Robert Mallory, who has come to see her about a ghost. He was referred by Florence's book, Seeing Through Ghosts, which he says is "next to the bible" on the shelf of the headmistress of his boys school, Rookfield. 19 years ago it was a residence, and a murder took place there. Now the boys have been seeing a ghost, and one of them has died. The boys are in the grip of fear. Florence's past as an orphan is brought up, and is clearly a painful memory for her. After initially saying no, she finally agrees.

They travel to Rookfield. It is the old grand manor on the vast grounds we've come to expect. She meets the headmistress, Maud, played by the delightful Imelda Staunton. There are other creepy characters, including a groundskeeper who was said to have shirked war service by pretending to be wounded. Florence meets the boys, who are indeed scared. She introduces all of her period ghost-finding equipment, including weathervane-type arrows that detect energies, strings with bells on them, movement-activated cameras, and the like. These will all be used to effectively create suspense later. Then they all settle in for the night.

Now, the spoilers come in two parts, one, general spoilers for those who want to go in fresh (recommended), and big-ass spoilers in which we discuss the ambiguous ending. Reader prepare!

As expected, bumps are heard in the night. Bells are rung. Footsteps are heard. Shadowy figures are glimpsed from the corner of one's eye. It's a well-executed sequence that works by giving importance to the slightest of phenomena, so that when people are actually fleetingly seen, it's a big, successful freak-out. It's also when this film reveals that it will be much more austere than Woman in Black, in which the phenomena reached several (very fun) fever pitches, and things really jumped out and screamed. Here it's all very low-key, but effective. In the morning it is soon revealed that one of the staff is abusing the boys, leading to the death of the one. Case closed! All of the boys except one go home for a holiday, leaving just the staff and one orphan, Tom.

By now it has been well established that Florence has a number of issues of her own, and is only partially stable. She lingers on the grounds, and has a fainting spell beside a pond. A spy hole leading to the bathroom is discovered. Little things start getting unnerving, and Florence gets scared. Rebecca Hall is a very precise, controlled actress, and when she starts coming unhinged, her very hysteria is the movie's secret weapon--and it trusts her to carry it. In a really wonderful sequence, things start getting unnerving, then spooky, then freaky, and by the time a full-on ghost appears, it is truly shocking. This whole thing unfolds by daylight, by the way. Thing is, no one else saw the ghost, and it's widely apparent by now that Florence herself has issues that could fuel an entire season of Dr. Phil.

After some more shenanigans, the sub-twist is revealed: there are no children presently at the school. That means that Tom is a ghost. But Maud has been seeing him, too. This is around where things start getting so complicated that it's hard to keep up with the movie because you're too busy trying to sort everything out. Soon it unravels that... Florence was part of the family that lived in the house. Tom is her half-brother, fathered by her own father and the son of... Maud. When Florence's mother found out, she confronted the father and he shot her with a shotgun, then went stalking for Florence herself before committing suicide. She went away and forgot everything. The whole case was a ruse to bring her back, get her to remember, and find her place at Rookfield.

But Maud and Tom want them all to be one big happy ghost family, and Maud poisons herself and Florence to achieve this end. Robert, who has come to love Florence, runs to get the antidote, but can't find it. When he returns, Florence is lying lifeless on the floor. The next day we see her, walking around just fine, and speaking to Robert, but it's unclear whether or not she's a ghost, as the movie has established a rule that people can see the ghosts of those they care about. Then it ends. Then you discuss, and pick apart. I have come to believe that Florence is alive, that Tom the ghost took pity on her and defied his mother to give her the antidote, and set her free from eternity spent at Rookfield. My friend thought about it and came to believe that Florence is dead, and a ghost. I suppose it would be clearer if one saw it again, but without that, there is compelling evidence for both positions.

Tooling around the IMDb message boards led me to an interview with the director, who said that he "wanted to give people something to talk about as they left the theater." That's nice--and please note that he's thinking about the enjoyment of the audience, which many directors seem to forget--but if it's ambiguity just for the sake of ambiguity, I have to frown on that. See--I'm frowning! Take THAT! I'd like there to be a definitive answer, and perhaps there is, if one saw it again. The director also said that they went over the story again and again to make sure that every hint fit together, and that is also appreciated. This is the director, Nick Murphy's, first feature, and it is expertly put together, quite assured, and really beautifully done. Although with the astonishingly desaturated palate (some scenes are literally a shade away from black-and-white), my friend had to sincerely ask me if his eyesight was going.

So as I said, I was super into it until the ending, when the complexity exploded. It is a very low-key, slow-building, character-based story that constantly drops a lot of interesting character information, which is all interesting and deepens the proceedings, but also helps make them scary. There is a certain sequence in which Florence explains that she can't stand to be afraid--which also provides background of why she debunks ghosts--but also works on the emotions, because if she's afraid, things must be pretty bad. Her hysteria is contagious, and effective.

The other thing is that the two haunting sequences were beautifully handled. Again, we have to compare to the recent Woman in Black, which passes the test of being a very pleasant memory, months later. That one also had two major haunting sequences, and while that one was also restrained (no gore, no reanimated corpses), it was a comparative jump-scare haunted house compared to this (not saying that's necessarily bad). This one takes the smart approach of dialing phenomena way down, so that a marble rolling down a staircase creates monstrous dread, and a doll in a dollhouse is a jump-inducing element. Rather than go over the top and try to have things be louder and more explosive, it's nice to see a film getting mileage out of dialing things back and squeezing effect out of small elements.

The only thing is, hmmm, interesting approach (or effect) from the ending. Basically, it's so complex that you're just trying to keep up, which means that you're distracted from the movie as its finishing... which means you're distanced from the movie at the very moment you should be most on board. It's nice that one has something to pick apart and puzzle over afterward (so long as it's just purely for the sake of having something to puzzle over), but it perhaps does the movie a disservice in the end, as it takes away from the "Wow, I loved that!" feeling one could have left with, and replaces it with "So, what just happened?"

Still, a very literary, character-based ghost story that provides well-earned, honest thrills is worth your money. You should go.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, if you like low-key, literary ghost stories,