Set in a 1921 England still reeling from World War I and the influenza pandemic that followed, The Awakening is an upscale supernatural tale in the vein of The Orphanage and The Others, a film that tries to balance its genre elements with human drama. It succeeds more with the latter than the former, though the film does include a few effective chills, thanks to its elegantly creepy setting—an old manor house turned boarding school—and its use of period paranormal-detection equipment. The Awakening is both a ghost story and an exploration of mourning and survivor’s guilt, though a late twist turns the film away from its delicate merging of these two themes into something both more plotty and stilted.
Rebecca Hall plays an “educated woman,” as others like to describe her, and a professional debunker of the spiritualism running rampant through a country that’s experienced so much death in such a short time. Hall deserves a complex lead role like this—her character has a brisk certainty that initially reads as arrogance, but actually conceals desperate heartbreak. In every would-be supernatural case she takes on, she really longs to be proven wrong, to find evidence of some world beyond that suggests an aspect of her dead lover survives in the afterlife. Convinced by dishy, damaged headmaster Dominic West to come investigate the death of a student allegedly caused by the spirit of a long-ago murdered boy, Hall confronts something she can’t explain scientifically.
Done in chilly grays and blues, its characters all as pallid and enervated as an Edward Gorey doodle, The Awakening sustains its tense atmosphere with jumpy periodic appearances from its child specter and clever use of a dollhouse version of the school in which figures matching up with the building’s occupants are arranged in uncanny tableaux. When the film does finally explain what’s happening and why, the unraveling is a letdown, not just because it diffuses the frightening mystery, but because it treads on the wistful, doomed sense of longing the film built up. In its fierce but lonely protagonist and the other wounded inhabitants of the barren institution, the film creates a feeling that those spared by trauma and death might continue to seek it out as a palliative for a life that otherwise feels empty.