||Like “The Woman in Black,” Nick Murphy’s directorial debut is a ghost story so old-fashioned that, if it were cut to an hour and done in black-and-white, it might be confused with an episode of the 1950s “Thriller” series hosted by Boris Karloff. It lacks the box office draw of a post-Potter Daniel Radcliffe and so probably won’t match the earlier film’s financial success, but though stately in pacing, it generates a good deal of atmosphere, even if the last-act revelations strain to surprise while tying all the plot threads.
The script by Murphy and Stephen Volk is a haunted house (or more properly, haunted school) tale set in 1921 England, when the Great War and the concomitant influenza epidemic had killed off sizable portions of the population, fostering a spiritualist movement in which survivors sought to make contact with their lost loved ones. The protagonist is Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), a rationalistic ghost hunter (or more properly, ghost debunker), who’s shown in a prologue unmasking a phony medium at a séance that she shows to be an elaborate hoax.
Exhausted and depressed, Cathcart—who’s haunted, metaphorically of course, by the memory of her parents’ death in Kenya—plans a long rest until Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a scarred war veteran now teaching at a boys’ boarding school in Cumberland, shows up asking that she investigate reports of ghost at Rookford, an erstwhile private estate converted to educational use, that’s rumored to have been involved in the recent death of a student. She decides to take the case, which of course challenges her skepticism despite the disclosure of some purely human agencies behind the boy’s demise.
It’s central to the mood of “The Awakening” that the story is set for the most part during a school holiday, when—after an initial couple of days of investigation involving the whole student body and the small staff, including the officious headmaster—Rookford is largely deserted but for Florence, Mallory, house matron Maud (Imelda Staunton), groundskeeper Judd (Joseph Mawle) and a single student, Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), whose parents are in faraway India. Though there’s a typically anachronistic tendency to turn Cathcart into the model of a modern independent woman—the same problem that afflicted Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character in “Hysteria”—it’s amusing to watch her spar with the headmaster over her atheism, and fiddle with her newfangled gadgets designed to photograph spirits or detect temperature variations.
As to the plot mechanisms, however, it would be unfair to reveal overmuch. Suffice it to say that there is a ghost haunting Rookford, whose secret Florence will uncover even while falling for handsome, wounded Mallory and avoiding snarling Judd, a snarling draft-dodger whom Mallory detests. The resolution, which involves deaths, flashbacks to the school’s past as a private home, and abrupt transformations in a couple of characters, owes something to such varied supernatural thrillers as “The Sixth Sense,” “The Others” and “The Innocents,” and quite frankly it stretches credulity to the breaking point, especially since it’s all doled out at such a deliberate pace. (The flashbacks, moreover, feature some really terrible acting.) But Murphy manages to maintain a mood of brooding tension throughout—aided by Eduard Grau’s atmospheric widescreen cinematography, which bleaches most of the color out of the images, giving them a gray, dank appearance, and by Victoria Boydell’s carefully calibrated editing and Alison Wright’s background score. The physical production—overseen by designer Jon Henson, with able assists from art directors Nicola McCallum and Fiona Gavin, set decorator Robert Wischhusen-Hayes and costumer Caroline Harris—captures the post-war period admirably.
On the thespian side, Hall manages the varied facets of the troubled, driven Cathcart well, and West provides stalwart support. Staunton, as usual, delivers a restrained turn filled with simmering undercurrents, Hempstead-Wright makes a convincingly vulnerable student, and Mawle is a thoroughly detestable villain. Shaun Dooley makes a brief but vivid impression as a teacher raging with anger over what the mustard gas in the trenches had done to him.
Like the hidden rooms and crevices in Rookford that Cathcart discovers during her search of the premises, “The Awakening” has a musty air, feeling almost like a well-mannered relic of a bygone filmmaking age. In an era when horror pictures revel in the most disgusting displays of blood and gore, it depends more on suggestion and decorous scares to achieve its ends. But while it offers more goosebumps than gasps, it’s a pleasurable reminder of the sort of discreet supernatural thriller that was once a staple but is now, unhappily, a rarity. And in that respect it’s actually more effective an antique than “The Woman in Black,” despite Radcliffe’s absence.