The Awakening is a ghost story thick with historical and literary antecedents. Brainy spinster and professional ghost-buster Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) makes her living debunking fake séances and charlatans in post–World War I England. It’s a very clever setup, as the million British lives lost in the war and subsequent influenza epidemic seemingly shattered the country’s sanity, and plunged it into a brief, embarrassing dalliance with Spiritualism. In one notable case, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became obsessed with séances and mediums in a desperate attempt to contact his dead son. This led to a famous falling-out with his friend Harry Houdini, who considered Spiritualism infuriating nonsense and subsequently devoted much of his stage act in the 1920s to exposing their parlor tricks and chicanery.
Florence herself is a skeptic and truth-teller along Houdini’s lines; her character also recalls the Baskerville-era Sherlock Holmes, with a heavy dash of Miss Marple thrown in. Some of the greatest pleasures of this film come with watching her gleefully setting up her elaborate scientific equipment and hunting for ghosts—or rather, people pretending to be ghosts, their trickery soon triumphantly exposed.
Florence’s fame eventually leads to a commission to rout out a supposed spectre at an all-boys boarding school in the country, a job she reluctantly takes at the behest of its headmaster, the stuttering, self-mutilating war veteran Robert Mallory (Dominic West). The school is housed in a brooding country mansion, complete with a menacing servant, a faintly dotty matron (Imelda Staunton), and creepy little schoolboys. Once Florence arrives, she attacks her assignment with the zeal of the self-assured skeptic, and feels confident she’s won another round against ignorance and superstitious stupidity. But gradually, mysterious events undermine her scientific methods, and she begins to unravel as she realizes she cannot explain away this particular haunting.
The film, co-written by director Nick Murphy and Stephen Volk, works too hard to set up Florence’s motivations: her parents died when she was little, and she’s been trying to shine a night light into her primal fear of the dark ever since. Eventually, the heavy-handed psychology drags at the story like a sodden skirt pulling down a drowning woman. The best moments are the smallest ones, when cryptic words echo in empty rooms. A diorama model of the school is used to singularly disturbing effect—tiny doll-versions of Florence trace her actions from the moment of her arrival, suggesting she is being watched by an unseen presence—and moments of tension are allowed to build sufficiently to create genuine fear. The Awakening is a serviceable ghost story but never achieves the nerve-shattering tautness of The Others, a film it superficially resembles, as Hall cannot deliver Nicole Kidman’s level of exquisite hysterics.
The ending is also a bit of a muddle, as the film abandons its premise in the rush to deliver familiar, Hollywood-style plot twists and narrative closure. The Awakening is so careful to sew up every last fissure, to explain all of Florence’s fears with concrete events and brush aside her angst with a few solid childhood traumas, that it loses out on an opportunity to create a much deeper and more lingering kind of dread. A truly frightening ghost story should be inexplicable, so that both Houdini and Conan Doyle would be left at a loss. This alternate, more unsettling path is suggested in a scene where Florence kneels on a little dock overlooking the lake near the school. She peers into it and whispers to herself, “There is nothing,” before rolling off the dock into the waters below.