Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Awakening: the Interwar Ghost-Hunter

It was always an old English tradition to have a ghost in your country house.  After World War I, there were also plenty of dearly departed to be visited by.  Of course, this led to a grand opportunity for a host of charlatans armed with a few garden variety parlor tricks.  Florence Cathcart has made it her calling to debunk those flim-flam artists while she struggles with her own emotional issues in Nick Murphy’s The Awakening (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Cathcart is a bestseller, celebrated and sometimes reviled for her work exposing phony spiritualists.  That is actually no small accomplishment for a British woman in 1919.  While she is on friendly terms with Scotland Yard, she feels hollow inside.  Robert Mallory is also skeptical, at least of her brilliance.  However, with the boys of his private school spooked by sightings of a spectral student from years past, he reluctantly seeks her help, which she reluctantly gives.  Much to her surprise though, Rookwood’s haunting is not so easy to dismiss.

Determined to crack the case, Cathcart stays on at Rookwood over the holiday break, with only Mallory, Maud Hill the kitchen matron, and young Tom, a student unable to return home during the academic hiatus, for company.  There might be a few more malevolent entities as well, such as the brutish groundskeeper and perhaps the odd supernatural element.

Awakening starts out strong, establishing a vivid sense of time and place.  Much like Rodrigo Cortés’ nose-diving Red Lights, the early séance-busting scenes are fun and atmospheric.  The locations are certainly evocative too.  Lyme Park in Cheshire, where most of the exteriors were shot (having previously stood in for Pemberley in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) has to be one of the most severe looking estates the aristocracy ever summered in.  Cinematographer Eduard Grau certainly makes it appear ominous and full of foreboding.  Unfortunately, it all builds towards an over the top conclusion, loaded with contrived twists that would only leave M. Night Shyamalan satisfied.

Rebecca Hall is okay as the doubter in crisis.  She has the necessary intelligent presence and shivers with admirable conviction.  However, the real standout work comes from Dominic West (terrific in BBC America’s The Hour) as the WWI veteran Mallory, with the heart of a romantic and a persistent case of survivor’s guilt.  It is sensitive, deeply humane turn.

Like many supernatural films, The Awakening completely dispenses with its better judgment in the third act.  Still, its first two thirds are effectively eerie and entertaining.  Frankly that is above average for the genre standard.  Recommended for those who enjoy the conventions of old dark British haunted houses, The Awakening opens this Friday (8/17) in New York at the Angelika Film Center and the AMC Empire.