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British Film Review: The Awakening
The Awakening centres on post World War I 1920’s England, now engulfed in grief and the world where Spiritual Hoax Exposer and author Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) resides. Florence passes through life in half existence revealing the shady practices of spiritual fraudsters exploiting the pain of the grief-stricken. Florence is quickly revealed to be burdened by her own pains as a tragic, wealthy orphan and now more recently mourning her dead love killed in the war. Florence is a strong, capable woman who prides herself on her intelligence, commitment to reason and truth in explainable facts. Underneath this detached scepticism, we see that Florence has locked herself in her own private torment carried in her love’s silver cigarette case and photo.
When Robert Mallory, former soldier and Assistant School Master (played brilliantly by Dominic West) arrives requesting Florence’s help in the mysteries behind his boys boarding school, Florence initially refuses. Mallory seeks Florence to confirm the truth behind sightings of a ghost and to find out if the spirit was responsible for the recent death of a pupil. The school is also linked to a suspected murder covered up years before. Mallory approaches Florence against his own practical judgement but due to the requests of the School Nurse Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton) who is a fan of Florence’s book. Mallory wants to protect his pupils in the same manner as on the battlefield but doesn’t believe in the ‘certainty’ of Florence’s work.
Florence arrives at the school and meets Maud and the pupils before the school closes for holidays – in particular Tom (Isaac Hempstead- Wright) and immediately forms a connection which forms the hidden layers for the rest of the story. Florence begins to investigate supported by reason, scientific equipment but strangely without her supporting team.
The themes of the film focus on repression, the past, guilt and perception vs memory. It manipulates audience expectation with shifts on perception but somehow over-emphasises slowness and pace in the wrong places so there isn’t enough time to flesh out the characters or this world immersed in guilt and loss.
Nick Murphy film falls into familiar territory with films such as ‘The Reaping’ ‘Stigmata’ ‘Drag Me to Hell’ and ‘Angel Heart’ dealing with characters firmly rooted in reason, who begin to experience unexplainable events and increasing terror. Murphy’s direction is slow paced and allows the audience to engage with this visual picnic of Post War London on a £3 million budget.
The period setting is darkly beautiful with its attention to detail for this grey coloured, war-beaten London then retreating to the lushness of the countryside and trees hanging overcast. This film attempts to be clever and modern while paying homage to a past filled with pain and scars but tries to fast track to major plot points and turns. This decision leaves the various ‘bumps’ and ‘twists’ appearing rushed and brief. This post World War I film is tinged with survivor's guilt and repression and the inversions of past and present, living and dead are presented with a slow paced elegance. Rebecca Hall as Florence Cathcart; embraces the spirit of the modern woman determined to appear to equal a man's logic and reason by acting as a scientific and more practical 'ghost-buster' of the time. Dominic West is excellent as the damaged war veteran turned school master who is still fighting his own internalised war but lives with his demons. Overall, the film as a horror story underwhelms as it races and slows down in the wrong places and doesn't fully explore the rich complications of Florence and her dead love or Mallory which doesn’t do their well-formed characterisations justice. The chemistry between Hall and West as these traumatised survivors who recognise each other's wounds is redeeming. Imelda Staunton and Game of Thrones' Isaac Hempstead- Wright are pitch-perfect in their supporting roles.' Murphy does a decent job of bringing this measured horror story set in 1920’s London to the screen with a clear respect, low budget and promising British cast.
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