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“The Awakening,” which goes into limited American release on 17 August, is remarkable for recent movies about the paranormal. It cheats auds only a tad, and the cheat, which is really just a feint, is in the final reel and redeemed by pic’s ending.
Pic’s premise is simple. In 1921, one million Brits had died in the First World War and the subsequent Spanish Influenza. Grieving families turned to phony psychics to communicate with their dead loved ones. In the middle of this a young Englishwoman, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), orphaned as a girl in Kenya, becomes the Harry Houdini of London, writing books about phony psychics and busting up bogus séances, often with help from Scotland Yard. All of this is set up by exposition in the opening reel.
Pic, like most of its genre depends on washed out color (back in the day this would have been shot in black and white) and a somewhat over-the-top score for its setting, but both sins are forgivable.
Heck, it even boasts a meet-cute, which most of its genre lacks. The protagonists, Cathcart and Robert Mallory, a teacher at a boy’s boarding school and First World War vet ably played by Dominic West, who, in terms of casting, is perhaps a tad too muscular for his circumstances, meet at her doorstep. She thinks he wants and autograph and shoos him away. He persists, explaining his mission.
There is a rumor of a ghost at the boarding school. Class pictures since 1906 show the image of a boy who allegedly died in the previous century in a slight blur. The blurred images persist through the 1921 class picture. Recently another boy has died under mysterious circumstances. The boys believe it is the work of the ghost in the pictures, and the school fears the loss of tuition from fleeing students.
Despite her misgivings, Cathcart falls for the bait and sets off for the school, housed in a former mansion, with all that it implies.
She sets up her ghost busting equipment. She befriends the house matron, Maud Hill, in a star turn by Imelda Staunton. Auds are informed that the house matron does not believe in ghost nonsense.
From her arrival at the school, Cathcart enters the twilight zone. A little boy, Tom, played by Isaac Hempstead Wright, befriends her. Here is where the skill of director/writer Nick Murphy and co-writer Stephen Volk shine. It is not immediately apparent, but only two players see and speak to Tom, Cathcart and Maud. This is the element on which the plot turns.
Cathcart solves the recent death. It’s an asthma attack brought on by a beating from a messed-up teacher with a hacking cough, Malcolm McNair (Shaun Dooley). Pic could end there, but the Christmas interval is near, and filmmakers need to get the boys out of the school to set up the dénouement.
Now, a feint toward the creepy groundskeeper (Edward Judd, convincingly played by Joseph Mawle as a draft dodger) throws auds off the track. He has witnessed the inevitable love scene also convincingly played by West and the very attractive, 30-year-old Hall), and he has got the hots to have Cathcart (Hall) to himself. It does not go well for him. Eliminate another suspect.
Here is where pic shifts from the paranormal detective story to a 107 minute monument to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It is a credit to filmmakers that they are able to wrap up this complicated story in 107 minutes. Suffice it to say that Cathcart starts to doubt herself. She sees a ghost where none exists. In an amazing twist, it turns out that Maud, the house matron, had been her nanny in Kenya, and her father had an affair with her which produced a half-brother, namely Tom. Oh, the power of repressed memory!
Maud has never recovered from the accidental murder of her son. Hence the doctored photographs, and hence her desire for Cathcart to be the school’s ghostbuster. She wants to bring her dead son, his half-sister, and herself together in eternity.
The final reel builds remarkable suspense and ends with a curveball, which is ultimately exposed to the satisfaction of auds. Filmmakers do a good job of hiding the ending until the end. Its 107 minutes do not pass slowly. Pic shines in comparison to the recently released Sigourney Weaver vehicle, Red Lights, which falls into the trap of a pasted-on ending, the bane of many paranormal flicks.
Pic is rated “R” due to sexual content and nudity. The MPAA may be a little over-the-top on this one. Kids over 12 will understand and not be corrupted by the sex and nudity.