What better than a good old fashioned ghost story? Well, a lot of things, but for Netflix month we’ve found ourselves a doozy. Not just a ghost story, but a British supernatural period piece thriller, making it a little bit of a triple threat. Foreign horror films, usually Asian but sometimes European too, tend to be scarier (or at least more interesting). Whether its because of different cultural story telling technique, the evolution of local cinema, or even just a film industry that doesn’t place all its money on safe, possibly-profit-making movie, they tend to be better made. But will this be the case for this BBC production?
Let’s take a look at The Awakening.
The Awakening takes place in England shortly after the World War I, where young Florence Cathcart makes it her business to hurt out fake mediums and other false supernatural phenomenon, all in the hopes of finding actual proof of ghosts existing so she can look for her lost love. Gee, that doesn’t sound like character motivation from 1408 at all. She is contacted by a boarding school to come and figure out the source of some ghostly doings in the school. In the end she discovers more about her past through her interactions with teacher Robert Malory, school marm Maud, and a little boy named Tom, and finds proof that ghosts are real (yeah, real shocker there).
The acting is strong for this period-piece-thriller. The most recognizable face is Imelda Staunton as Maud, because she played the villainously pink Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter films. It’s sort of weird seeing her actual be nice in a film, but to her credit she is a fine actress. Rebecca Hall as Florence, who some might recognize from Iron Man 3, does a great job as the ruthless, intelligent but guarded Florence. It’s these two women who really shine in the film, more so than the men. Dominic West as Malory is there to be the strong, sensual love interest, and he does so well enough for a somewhat minor character in the grand scheme of the plot.
The cinematography almost makes up for the jumble of the plot. The choices in the color schemes are brilliantly done, making it bleak and old looking without making me want to take a nap or feeling overwhelmed by it. The period clothing is spot on, and the set design for the interior of the school is simple but still haunting. I’m not sure if they shot on location for the indoor scenes, but those they did outside were gorgeous, really showing off the beauty of the English countryside. If there was one reason to see this movie, it would have to be for the visuals. There aren’t that many special effects, nor are there many interesting shots, but compared to some bigger budget films, this film looks fantastic.
One of the biggest issues with the film is the big twist at the end. I mean I have seen some bizarre twists in my day, ever since M. Night Shyamalan made it cool to have one in every single supernatural thriller, but this was a weird one. The rest of this paragraph is going to wander into spoiler territory, so you’ve been warned. It turns out that Florence’s father murdered her mother and her illegitimate half-brother, who was Tom all along. Yes, Tom was a ghost only she and Maud could see because Maud is both Florence’s former nanny and Tom’s mother. Maud poisons herself and Florence to try and bring her family together, but Tom gets her a medication to help her throw the poison back up. Whether she lives or dies at the end is entirely up to the person watching – the scene at the end was shot to be entirely ambiguous, and not in an Inception “the-top-looks-like-its-wobbling-but-we-know-its-real-cause-his-totem-was-the-wedding-ring-all-along” sort of ambiguous. While this can work for some movies, for this one it felt more like a cop out. Not to mention there was an entire attempted rape and murder subplot that gets conveniently off screen and is never brought up again. The plot is one big mess by the time the third act rolls on, and it’s only ever scary towards the beginning if at all.
The Awakening turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. I personally thought it was only an okay film due to plot becoming way too convoluted in such a short amount of time. That being said if you’re a fan of period pieces I cannot recommend this film strongly enough – it is one of the few aspects it does well and the acting can carry the film. Otherwise I’d suggest leaving this one out of your queue in search of better ghost stories. Maybe go watch some Stephen King mini-series.
– Great cinematography and design.
– Strong acting.
– Great period piece.
– Convoluted plot.
– Ending doesn’t work well.
– Poor ghost story.