The paranormal mystery genre, whether it'd like to or not, trains moviegoers to recall those among its ranks that they've seen, and to decipher the mysteries lurking in the dusty, decrepit corners of eerie environments before they happen. Now, the only way the formula can work lies in the material's willingness to push boundaries beyond the foreseeable, or, perhaps, with execution so confident that those watching simply forget they've endured this nerve-testing experience before. In the midst of cracked, emotionless gray walls and ominous lighting in post-Victorian England, Nick Murphy's The Awakening aims for confident execution of familiar spook tactics and twists over innovation. Yet, it also shapes those on-edge characters navigating an empty British boarding school -- especially the role given to the talented Rebecca Hall -- into unique presences by exploring their psychological state, the reasons they are the way they are. While not altogether successful, with drabness fogging more than its atmosphere through BBC-heavy mannerisms, it's a eerie little supernatural drama in which old-fashion directives supersede its familiarity.
Interestingly, The Awakening touches on similar ideas to Rodrigo Cortes' Red Lights (both released in close succession), about a stony, tormented ghost debunker confronted with a situation that demands reevaluation of their beliefs -- and rethinking their fear of the unexplainable. Director Murphy's film, which handles that material in a more absorbing analog environment, takes us back to early-1900s, post-WWI England, where author-detective Florence Cathcart (Hall) answers a call to a boys' boarding school to investigate a death believed to be caused by a ghost. Cathcart, regarded as a sensible but astute pro who assists local police with quashing fraud, navigates the mansion-turned-school with relatively lo-fi tools: space thermometers, atmosphere barometers, trip-wire cameras and bells. Her sharpest tool is her analytical capability, the ability to see a charade, as well as how she can shut out panic in somewhat alarming situations; she's met, however, with questions about the eerie happenings that don't add up by her scientific standards.
The screenplay, written by Murphy and Stephen Volk, diverts little from standard haunted-house fare in its plot: Florence is persuaded to journey out to the countryside, through curiosity and emotional provocation from a weathered war veteran-turned-teacher, Robert (Dominic West), to pull the curtain back on the ethereal figure that appears in a series of class photographs. Once she's there, the mood gradually rises as she coyly moves about the spacious, rigid school environment, complete with a persnickety housekeeper (Imelda Staunton) and a rifle-toting groundskeeper (Joseph Mawle) who shoots shifty glances in her direction, creating a sense of unease around the typically steely-nerved hoax-killer. These are old, rusty devices with obvious purposes, somewhere between a mystery novel and a campfire tale, yet even the aged creakiness of their familiarity casts a faint spell of foreboding as the camera follows Florence between stuffy rooms. Director Murphy doesn't camouflage the familiarity either, instead embracing scenes of scolded children and voyeuristic snooping through cracked walls.
Eventually, the gloomy daytime sequences surrender to the darkness of night, allowing The Awakening's bucolic corridor-to-corridor tension to mount through unsurprising but well-telegraphed trembles of measured atmosphere. Standard accoutrements of the genre are present and accounted for; violins begs for hairs to rise, creaks and clicks of wood echo in vast darkness, and a dollhouse eerily mirrors the onlookers in the stillness of night. The film's artful cinematography, full of lamp-lighting and worn walls that underscore the school's age, dresses these sequences in a curiosity that the daylight moments could've benefitted from, where that dreary-gray staleness dampens the impact that could've furthered enlivened Florence's exploration of those shadowy extremities. Granted, those base sensory jolts driven by ghostly faces do succeed when the film needs a tingle, while those that populate the school -- troubled boys and adults alike -- are viewed suspiciously by our skeptic afterwards. While the likes of The Woman in Black and The Others easily edge it out in aggression and atmosphere, there's something to admire in its restraint.
The Awakening's most compelling trait can be found in the progression of Florence's grip on her fear, and how Rebecca Hall lets the calculated, stalwart character weaken. She stalks the school at first as a truth-seeker whose unshakable resolve allows her to conquer shadows, someone who simply doesn't believe in things that go bump in the night. With lamp light bathing her thin frame, she effortlessly bolsters the persona of a science-minded atheist; however, as Florence laments the death of her soldier husband and gets lost in some of the building's unanswerable questions, she crumbles under the weight. Hall's performance emboldens the pensive moments of psychological defeat and longing for affection -- the stillness of a bath; the sensation of a hand on her shoulder; the feeling of being watched -- which attempt to interact with the eeriness of ghosts, be it literal or figurative, that populate the school's byzantine architecture. Her chemistry with the remainder of the cast stays at arm's length, aside from Robert, but that's largely by design.
Alas, naturally, an entry in this genre can't seem to escape the obligation for a grand perspective-shifting twist -- or twists -- nowadays, to liven its intrigue and encourage repeat viewings. The Awakening is no exception: in the midst of spinning barometers and shifts in temperature, details unravel in a weighty connection-of-dots that, despite being largely similar to others of its ilk, fights through implausibility towards a convincing catharsis for Florence. Whether Hall's performance is responsible for that or not I can't be certain, but her fraught presence becomes crucial as the film descends. Are Murphy and Volk's array of curtain-pulls successful in their endeavors? Only partly; there's a point where invigorating shifts in observation bleed into the realm of personal interpretation with what exactly happened on the school's grounds, as well as unnecessary grand guignol undertones that don't do the film any favors by attempting to one-up its contemporaries. Though, I do dig the subtlety behind paying attention to something like a passed cigarette as a focal point for 11th-hour interpretation.
Video and Audio:
The Awakening's cold, eerie cinematography isn't the easiest thing to judge in terms of high-definition aptitude for a contemporary film, materializing in a 2.35:1-frame 1080p stretch of icy-blue skin tones and haunting gray dullness. Moments in the transfer reveal exquisite handling of little details and compelling plays on contrast; the presence of a hand underneath milky bathwater, the earthen texture of twisting stone stairs, and the ripples of water aside a weatherworn dock reveal discreet beauty that adds to the atmosphere. The intricacy of a dollhouse's enclosed items and the caked-on texture enveloping Rebecca Hall's face later in the film provide involving moments of clarity. Yet, they fight for attention in the midst of a generally lifeless (intentionally so) visual presentation that, despite a convincing artistic direction, often appears lacking in dimension, overly gray and somewhat artificial (similar to Universal's Jane Eyre). What's more, there are instances of hefty, coarse grain in scenes with complex light and dark elements which appear to step beyond the intentions of the cinematography. It's a balancing act, and The Awakening ultimately fits the production's mood, but it could be refined.
The 5-channel Master Audio track spooks up atmosphere and clarity that picks up the slack left by the visual treatment, where expected haunted-house sound elements -- the creaking of wood, the prodding of violin notes, the ringing of trip-wire bells -- coexist wonderfully with the stillness in the air needed to underscore Nick Murphy's intentions. A cluster of sound elements generate observable jolts, like rifle shots and spectral screeches that possess some lower-end aggressiveness and all-around vigor in the track, but this is largely a production where slight tension generates in listening to ping pong balls bounce and school-book satchels rustle against walls -- and they're satisfying crisp where needed. The wooden but pertinent dialogue sustains enough clarity to service the treatment's needs, rarely anything beyond hollow and tolerable (except a few rich moments involving Dominic West's vocals), and the musical underbelly created by Dan Pemberton's score merely coasts along with the rest of the design.
A Time for Ghosts (24:49, HD):
Out of the starting gate, this is a surprisingly sober look at the WWI time period and how it impacts the tone for The Awakening, whether it directly informs what appears in Nick Murphy's film or not. Interviews with the director, Rebecca Hall and Dominic West, and the author of "The Great Silence" embark on offering a portrait of the context that the film explores, about grief and a silent empathy among the people of Britain during the period, while organically molding to the pertinence that this general content imparts on Nick Murphy's orchestration.
Extended Interview with Nick Murphy (19:28, HD):
Elements of this interview appear in the "A Time of Ghosts" feature (and elsewhere), but the content available here takes on a more general tone -- and the content Murphy divulged ends up being honest, appreciative, yet self-assured expressions of what he aimed to achieve with The Awakening. Starting out with addressing the film's familiarity to others of the genre, the director then evolves his discussion into a dissection of his research and his experiences with the actors and actresses employed, which express admiration and appreciation without heartily back-slapping. Also, while it's branded as a straight interview with Murphy, you'll also catch glimpses of high-definition behind-the-scenes footage from the shooting of the film, full of rifles, smoke, and Rebecca Hall. Nice piece of work here.
Anatomy of the Scene: Florence at the Lake (15:05, HD):
We've gotten to a point where if a "scene anatomy" feature actually shows up on a home-video release, it's a quick and perfunctory exploration only lasting a few minutes. Murphy's exaination of a pointed scene in The Awakening offers a bit of grander-scale, almost philosophical exposition of what he aimed to create here; he discusses intended ambiguity, the "blackness" of depression, and how it's tough to remember the precise way a scene is supposed to look once you reach the edition room. Interviews with the actors and further behind-the-scenes shots elucidate the points he's trying to make, and while the discussion drags a bit in pace, the content within justifies the lingering pace.
Anatomy of a Scream (17:12, HD):
It's interesting to start this piece out with Nick Murphy denouncing (almost!) all forms of supernatural presences, then to hear the actors involved discuss their acknowledgment of their semi-belief in something paranormal. Murphy, once again, goes high-concept in his discussion as he touches on universal perceptions of death and the afterlife, which then leads into the discussion of spooky essences lingering in buildings. This featurette centers more on why the eeriness of the film's atmosphere works, and less about the actual assertion behind how they work in terms of the film's construction.
Those four pieces likely would've been enough even without a general, extensive Behind the Scenes (36:03, HD) featurette, which ties together all the topics discussed in the previous sections. It's similar in rhythm, mixed with similarly sober and incisive interviews, as they delve into the story and atmosphere on a broader basis. Rounding out the features is a slate of Deleted Scenes (28: 13, HD), with an introduction from Nick Murphy that parallels the difference between film and TV excised material. While I would've liked for a full HD trailer to
Those who have less patience with familiarity and predictability in the paranormal suspense-drama field might not put too much stock in The Awakening: the devices it employs around a hoax-detective investigating a boys' boarding school, set in post-WWI England, creak and wobble with overly-familiar tropes. However, when looked at as a subtle mystery telling an intimate story while within the genre's trappings, Nick Murphy's film manages to orchestrate a slight but intriguing exploration of Florence Cathcart's grasp on fear and grief while unearthing the secrets of the boarding school, the sounds that echo among the chipped walls and wood floors occasionally tapping into an effectively chilly manner. If I could settle my judgment somewhere between a rental and a recommendation, I would; however, the jolts it offers, the performance from Rebecca Hall, and the general atmosphere aren't quite enough to nudge it beyond a Rental. Universal's Blu-ray does expresses fine-enough audiovisual properties -- with occasional moments of brilliance -- and a spread of special features (nearly everything from StudioCanal's UK release), which do make a case for a higher acknowledgment.