The Awakening (2011)

The Awakening first published by Little White Lies

“This is a time for ghosts,” states the text that opens Nick Murphy’s The Awakening. The time is 1921, shortly after war and influenza had killed many millions, and left survivors haunted. Yet the text is a citation (complete with authenticating bibliographical reference) from the book Seeing Through Ghosts by one Florence Cathcart, who will turn out to be the film’s protagonist – and so the film has already begun the strange dance of fact and fiction that will later continue at an isolated boarding school (motto: Semper Veritas), where, amidst boyish pranks and staged frights, eternal truths – about trauma, guilt and loss – are allowed to peek through.  

When we first meet her, Florence (Rebecca Hall) is engaged in her own masquerade, sneaking pseudonymously into a London séance to debunk the proceedings. Yet as she exposes the fraudulent spiritualists’ bag of tricks with all the forensic acumen of a ghost-busting Sherlock Holmes, the sequence also reveals a verity about the human need to believe. A woman who imagined she had seen her dead son seems angrier at Florence for disillusioning her than at the charlatans for cheating her – and even Florence herself, who had come bearing a photograph of her own recently deceased beloved, seems as upset as she is triumphant at having proved once again that the dead really are dead. 

Florence takes on a new case at Cumbrian school Rockwood, said to be haunted by the ghost of a boy murdered there decades earlier, and more recently the scene of another boy’s death. Armed with scientific apparatus and her own deductive powers, Florence quickly sees through the ghosts to a more rational explanation of what went on there – but then, after the schoolboys have headed home for Christmas, she stays on, alone but for war-scarred schoolmaster Robert Mallory (Dominic West), matron Maud (Imelda Staunton), vacation boarder Tom (Isaac Hamsptead-Wright), and war-shirking caretaker Judd (Joesph Mawle). Except that there are others, too, lurking these corridors, if only Florence could see – and recognise – what is before her very eyes. 

Everything about this classic ghost story is assured, from the shell-shocked performances to the period detail, from the time-layered locations to the bleached-out palette – all held together by an exquisitely crafted screenplay from Stephen Volk (Gothic, 1986; TV’s Ghostwatch, 1992) and Murphy that carefully sets up satisfying twists while retaining a haunting ambiguity to the end.

Anticipation: These days (non-Spanish) ghost stories invite scepticism.

Enjoyment: “Don’t look away. You mustn’t look away.” 

In Retrospect: It’s an elegantly constructed masquerade, but its haunting sadness rings true.  

© Anton Bitel