The Awakening (2011)

September 21, 2014
The Awakening movie review
Photo Credit: The Awakening / StudioCanal
Grieving and in denial of losing her beloved suitor after World War I, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is an author on supernatural hoaxes. Masking her fear of life after death, Cathcart's reputation for debunking the occult proceeds her across London. Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a teacher from a boarding school, calls on Cathcart for her assistance. After the mysterious death of a pupil, the remaining classmates are terrified of a juvenile ghost that may have been the cause.

From the start, The Awakening had great potential. Hall immediately proves to be a dynamic and smart protagonist, as we first witness her catching crooks in the act of putting on a fake ghostly supershow. Once called on her journey to the countryside, she is joined by a culprit of suspicious characters. Maud (Imelda Staunton) serves as the house maiden who is strangely enamored with Cathcart's work; Edward, a crooked groundskeeper who immediately takes a disliking to Cathcart's arrival; Malcolm, a temperamental teacher. Who may or what may not be in on the rouse of this school's haunting has all the right ingredients to really scare the pants off of its viewers.

With a muted gray color scheme, lush isolated countryside home, and a range of untrustworthy characters by the protagonist's side, the direction provides a lot of moments where we wait on the edge of our chair to be scared. Making us jump every other second is not the film's goal, and that's where the pacing and plot work well. At first, it's easy to point figures for surely we've seen this movie before; an isolated school that is demonized by a child who is stuck between this world and the next. As Cathcart rigs the house with early 20th century gadgets, her chemistry to Mallory grows stronger, as does her relations to Tom, one of the lonely orphaned pupils. The investigation challenges her beliefs of the supernatural and slowly her resolve weakens due to her own encounters with a real supernatural force.

After the first hour, the suspense wears off. A realization hits that maybe this movie isn't even intending to be scary at all. Solving the pupil's murder appears to be cut-and-dry until an otherworldy power continues to show itself. Enough clues pop up to lead us down a rabbit hole of questions: are all the characters dead? is there even a school ghost? When Cathcart's strong-headed defiance against supernatural entities wains, was she just crazy all along?

For two hours the script builds up Cathcart and splendidly causes us to re-evaluate her convictions. Hall shows vigor and her chemistry to Wes is off the charts. The side characters are all given enough time so we feel sympathy for them but also doubt that they may not be one of many hoaxers she's successfully disproved. But then like many recent horror movies, the twist does not follow the plot.

The Awakening presents one obstacle and then answers other questions that mystically poof into being. I didn't know what was more frustrating: the cheap curveball that comes out of nowhere, or the main character's degradation just so the twist can be revealed.

A dramatic unsurprising boom is lowered. Maud, Mallory, Tom feel like pawns to the script when they were originally its allies. The creepy groundskeeper guy (who really just had a cameo role) out of nowhere actually tries to rape Cathcart. The tactic is so supremely unnatural, the script almost seems proud of itself for taking on such a violent encounter and passing it off as part of a master plan.

It seems since The Others (a similar film starring Nicole Kidman) sent chills down audiences spines in 2001, Hollywood has failed to produce horror films where the endings fit the plot. A debut director who shows great potential and an experienced talented cast make the most out of this one, and it's a shame so much defeats their effort. The failed third act within so many recent ambitious horror movies has depleted my excitement that one day the films centered around ghostly children will have life breathed back into it. In the interim, stay away from The Awakening. It'll put you to sleep.

Rating: ★☆☆
Have you seen The Awakening? What do you think?

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