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Transmissions to Earth Presents:
THE AWAKENING (2011)
Movie Review by LL Soares
The 2011 ghost movie THE AWAKENING has a few strikes against it from the get-go. First off, it’s yet another movie where a paranormal investigator goes to a haunted house to determine whether the ghost in question is real. We’ve seen way too many movies with this premise lately, to the point of annoyance (for me, at least), with very few of them breaking any new ground or doing anything even remotely fresh. And none of them are up to the level of the two source materials that did it early and best, Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (filmed first and best in 1963 as THE HAUNTING, and then remade in a forgettable 1999 version, with a TV series currently in the works for Netflix, from director Mike Flanagan, who gave us HUSH and OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, both in 2016) and Richard Matheson’s 1971 novel HELL HOUSE (filmed as THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE in 1973).
The second strike is that awful title, THE AWAKENING. It tells you little about the movie and is problematic because there are a lot of movies with the same name or variations. Not exactly the best way to stand out in a crowd.
Despite these two problems right off the bat, however, THE AWAKENING is worth seeking out. If it is not better known, it’s probably because of the two issues I’ve mentioned. Those, and the fact that I doubt if it got a decent theatrical release back in 2011. Right now, it can be found streaming on Netflix.
THE AWAKENING presents us with Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall, also in THE PRESTIGE, 2006, TRANSCENDENCE, 2014, and THE GIFT, 2015), who, because of a personal tragedy, has thrown herself into the profession of being a paranormal debunker. When we first meet her, it’s 1921 in England and she is in the middle of a séance. She interrupts the proceedings to prove that the entire ceremony is fake, followed by the arrival of policemen to cart the so-called “mediums” away. Florence does not believe in ghosts, and is determined not to let other people get cheated out of their money by scam artists intent on making a buck off the superstitious and gullible. Ms. Cathcart has even written a book on the subject which seems to be highly regarded. In a field where she doesn’t have much competition, Florence is considered an expert. Then why is it that after each time she unveils con artists for what they are, she sinks into a depression?
One day, she is visited by Robert Mallory (Dominic West, who played Jimmy McNulty on THE WIRE, 2002 – 2008, and was in the movies 300, 2006, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, 2008, JOHN CARTER, 2012, and is currently Noah Solloway on the Showtime series THE AFFAIR), the headmaster from a boy’s school. Lots of weird goings-on have been happening at the school lately and it has a death in its past (when it was a private home) and more recently, when one of his students named Walter died there. Mallory is not sure if there really is a ghost wandering the school’s halls—but some of the boys in his care have claimed to have seen it—and he knows he wants to get to the bottom of it all. Hearing that Florence is the expert on these matters, he has come to plead for her help.
At first, Florence turns him away, but then agrees to go to the school to check things out. There she meets Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton, also in VERA DRAKE, 2004, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 1, 2010, and MALEFICENT, 2014), the governess who takes care of the school and who recommended Mallory seek out Florence in the first place, because she’s a fan of her book; and Maud’s young son, Tom (Isaac Hempstead Wright, who plays Bran Stark in HBO’s GAME OF THRONES). Using (old-fashioned) cameras with flash bulbs and booby traps to catch the culprit, Florence is determined to expose whoever is pretending to be the ghost. Between abusive schoolmasters and child bullies, and a groundskeeper who always seems to be carrying around a shotgun, there are plenty of potential suspects. But, while some of the cast members are up to no good, there’s also a real ghost in the mix (of course).
Florence also has some issues of her own, including a man she loved who went to fight in World War I and never came back, and an incident in her past when she witnessed a murder as a child.
THE AWAKENING was directed by Nick Murphy, who also made the crime thriller BLOOD (2012), as well as directing episodes of TV shows like DRACULA (the underrated series starring Jonathan Rhys Myers from 2013 – 2014) and the upcoming Spike TV series based on Stephen King’s THE MIST. The screenplay is by Murphy and Stephen Volk (who also wrote the scripts for Ken Russell’s GOTHIC, 1986, as well as THE GUARDIAN, 1990).
The best thing in the movie is Rebecca Hall’s Florence Cathcart. The character alternates between being a confident debunker and an insecure woman on the verge of depression. I always enjoy her performances, and she’s very good here. West and Staunton are also reliable actors in strong supporting roles. The school is suitably atmospheric, as is WWI-era England time period, especially when the staff and most of the boys leave for vacation. The house gets especially spooky when there’s just a handful of occupants.
While not perfect, THE AWAKENING is one of the better films in the “ghost debunker visits a haunted house” subgenre, thanks to its cast and story.
© Copyright 2017 by LL Soares
This has been a “Transmission to Earth.”