World War I left England many ghosts. A generation of men—that Gertrude Stein later called The Lost Generation—was sent to the trenches. And of those who fought in the Great War, some came back, physically and spiritually fractured beyond repair, and others became pale memories.
The Awakening, directed by Nick Murphy, takes place in such a post war England. Murphy, who started his directing career doing historical documentaries for BBC and PBS, exhibits his obvious experience with historical settings in this gothic tale. The film has the feel of a period piece, which only adds to its verisimilitude.
The Awakening tells the story of a boarding school haunted by the ghost of a little boy who was supposedly murdered there years before. We follow Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), an author who exposes supernatural frauds for the police. In the first scene, she targets a séance being held for a woman who has lost her daughter to influenza. While the police thank Florence, the grieving mother slaps her, demanding if she knows what it feels like to have lost someone. Florence gazes sadly next door to where a house is being emptied of furniture. She removes a picture of a soldier from her coat, her lover lost in the war. Later, Florence stands among a line of empty chairs in the desolate streets of London. The image, like many others in the film, is haunting, poetic, and tragic.
On the surface, The Awakening has a seamless and dynamic narrative with twists and turns in the vein of M. Night Shyamalan. But beneath that it is a poignant allegory for the creeping sense of nihilism and isolation in a post war England from a distinctly feminine point of view. Florence, though she ardently disavows belief in ghosts, god, and an afterlife, is overcome with despair every time she disproves the existence of these phantoms. But when she encounters what may in fact be a real a ghost, she is forced to face her own demons. What unfurls is a wonderfully gothic story about memory and repression in the face of horror.
In line with The Awakening’s gothic themes, Florence uses modern science and technology, like flash photography and barometers, to contend with the supernatural threat. But unlike the sense of victory and enlightenment that occurs in Dracula when the vampire is banished by modernity, the technology in this film only serves to shine a light on an overwhelming void. The character’s loved ones have been killed and will never come back. We are left unsure of what’s more terrifying: finding a ghost in the darkness or just finding more darkness.
And like any good gothic tale, the great tomb like mansion is as much a character as any of the actors, each echoing room a metaphor for the dark and hidden compartments within our own mind. The house is an ominous labyrinth for the story to unfold deliciously inside of.
Ultimately, The Awakening is well written and comprised of a stunning cast, including the boys who play the boarding students. The majority of the soundtrack is silence, rippling with the hollow echoes of footsteps in the house, building tension organically. Much like The Sixth Sense, the film hinges on a narrative gimmick that seemingly makes the plot digestible only once. But when considering its post-war allegories and metaphors for memory, The Awakening ends up becoming a lasting story that’s worth watching again.
By David Calbert