The old adage about waiting ages for a bus and two arriving at once holds true at Shade Point. Within short order The Awakening follows The Woman in Black. Both of these films sit very comfortably in Shade Point land - creepy, ghostly stories set in what seems in many ways a long vanished era. Except, for those of us born well back in the last century, it isn't. The Victorian time is the time of my Grandparents' childhood, the Edwardian era, comfortably that of their early adulthood. My grandfather had to suffer through the mud and madness of the Somme.
The First World War looms large over the story in this film. Rebecca Hall stars as Florence Cathcart, an author in the early 1920s who makes it her business to debunk fake spiritualists and ghost sightings. The film opens with a very well handled example of her doing exactly that.
With an entire lost generation never having returned from the trenches of the Great War, spiritualism and the desire to connect with these lost souls was understandably at a very high point. It becomes clear that Florence Cathcart is coming at the same loss and anger from a slightly different angle.
She is visited by a school teacher (Dominic West). He asks her to come to the boarding school where he works to explore the death of one of the boys, and how this is linked to a series of ghostly sightings of another boy over numbers of years. What then follows is Florence's journey into the darkness as she uncovers much more than she had bargained for.
The film is to some extent a frustration, because like The Woman in Black it has an exceptionally well-created atmosphere, and looks fabulous, but doesn't just quite succeed in being a fully rounded piece. Slightly more so than The Woman in Black, if I'm honest. This is a pity, because there is a very great deal to like about it. I also suspect, which is slightly contradictory, that this will be all the more the pity because when the detail of The Woman in Black is faded, it will be this wistful and haunting film that will leave the more lasting impression. But as I say, there's lots that's good.
As mentioned, the setting for starters. Completely shot in Scotland as I understand it, London is nevertheless superbly done, and the grand boarding house has a grim, gothic beauty from the outside, and all the dark recesses and staircases a fan of the genre could possibly want. The colour palette, to my mind is very reminiscent of some of the very best Asian horrors of the 90s and creates a wonderfully, washed sepia sense of a time that has gone.
Another great strength is Rebecca Hall. As anyone watching the current Parade's End adaptation can attest, she's a brilliant actress. She excels as Florence Cathcart. She carries with her great strength and sadness and fragility. Without straying into spoilers, I have read criticism of a sudden change in the Cathcart personality, but I think this is completely consistent with events. She's stunning in this role really, and in many ways the highlight. When she arrives at the boarding house and sets up her steampunk array of ghost-finding tripwires and cameras, it's joyful.
There is also some superb film-making of the eerie here. I think hats-off always to those who can achieve even the merest sequences of genuine hair-raising dread these days. In truth, it happens rarely, or it is so marginalised by crash bang jump scares that the subtlety is lost. Not so, here. There is a patient moving forward through the uneasiness, that with only one or two jumping, CGI-ey mis-steps, is very well achieved. There is also, and apart from Rebecca Hall's performance, this is why I'm reviewing it, one bravura, bel canto, coloratura flat-out brilliant piece of horror that is up there with the very best. I'll try to dodge too big a spoiler for this, except to say it involves Rebecca Hall and a dolls' house. The film is genuinely worth viewing for this sequence alone. In a film that references so many seeming influences, from The Changeling to The Devil's Backbone, it is superb that it has its own skilful moments, and this stand out classic moment is the very best of them.
The 'but', I think, is in the last section of the film, and the unravelling of the story. As seasoned hunters of the great ghost movies will know, this is so, so often the case. A film feels like a masterpiece in the making only to start to diminish as the denouement either lets down, or baffles, or feels like a cheat in some way. To some degree, you could level all three of these at The Awakening, although I must stress that it's not an irredeemable situation - there's still more than enough in the film to make up for what its a fairly helter skelter bluster of exposition in the last section, with you guessed it, a lobby talk ambiguity at the end, that is actually ambiguity for the sake of it. I blame M. Night Shyamalan for this type of over kill on endings. Sometimes, you know, the very great stories just end, they finish on a point of wonder in terms of our human and philosophical responses to what has happened, not the dreaded 'hang on a minute' moment that boots most films that try this into touch. Sadly, with The Awakening, while the ending, in my view anyway, is not a mortal wound, it is certainly a significant one. A great pity as I say, because lots of it is just fantastic.
It is like poetry in a way, where there may be a search for the killer last line, the great metaphorical turn of attention, that leaves the reader in some version of a state of grace. A moment of haiku-like deep reflection from a simple elevation of words. This doesn't work, and just seems contrived, if the rest of the poem has not been moving collaboratively and instinctively towards this understanding in the first place. I have always believed there can be poetry in the supernatural spooky genres - The Awakening feels like a movie very nearly there, but one which went for the wrong last line.