Set in 1921, "The Awakening" is a grown-up ghost story with a spooky atmosphere and enough intrigue to keep you invested even when it takes you down well-trodden paths. It stars Rebecca Hall ("The Town") as Florence Cathcart, a debunker of supernatural occurrences that has written a best-selling book about her investigations. One day, Robert Mallory (Dominic West, "300") a schoolmaster of a prestigious boarding school, arrives to ask if she will come there to investigate a death that occurred as the result of a ghost the students have been seeing. Reluctant at first, Florence decides to take the journey and go about finding a rational explanation for the alleged specter.
Once there, she inquires about the sightings with the students and goes about setting up her equipment and traps. She meets the matron of the school, Maud (Imelda Staunton of the "Harry Potter "series) and a lonely boy named Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) who finds the company of adults preferable to his peers. If the mystery of the ghost weren’t enough, Florence starts to find that everyone in the school seems to have his own secrets and personal hauntings. This just makes the whole venture that much more unsettling; even when she still isn’t sure there is a reasonable explanation for the unnerving events she begins to experience.
Once she starts to probe, she finds herself less and less able to tell if what is happening is the work of mischievous students or the maneuverings of a clever and dangerous entity. And as the mystery begins to unravel, so does Florence’s psyche, stirring up memories of her parents killed long ago in Kenya. In the end there is a truth that Florence will discover that will solve the film’s integral mystery and bring about a closure to her own life that she never even knew she needed.
There is much to like about "The Awakening," from the effective scares to the lovely performances. This isn’t just a throw-away spook-a-thon, this is a film that takes its characters just as seriously as it takes the creep factor. Hall is particularly engaging here giving her character a wounded depth that adds to the curiosity about her past. Staunton (a regular from Mike Leigh’s movies who was Oscar-nominated for "Vera Drake") does her usual buttoned-up shtick that seems to be her calling card, but when the truth starts to come to light, she gives an effective portrayal of a woman carrying a long lost secret of her own.
The creative team is exceptional. Producer David M. Thompson was responsible for such hits as "Billy Elliot" and "An Education." Director Nick Murphy makes an impressive feature debut after years of work in TV including the BBC’s "Primeval." Cinematographer Eduard Grau shot Tom Ford’s gorgeous "A Single Man" and the Ryan Reynolds’ thriller "Buried." And writer Stephen Volk, who wrote the Liam Neeson/Christina Ricci vehicle "Afterlife," was responsible for one of Britain’s most notorious television experiences. Filmed as if it were a live investigation of a haunted house, the TV movie "Ghostwatch" used cheaper cameras and production values to give it an authentic feel. As a result, when the film started to become unnerving, the viewing audience began to think the movie was real resulting in a sort of mass terror. Clearly, the man knows how to scare.
To be fair, there are some moments toward the big reveal that seemed a bit too tidy to be firmly believable, and the ending was a momentarily confusing. But while it’s not the most terrifying film to come out in years, "The Awakening" is effectively chilling. If you’re looking for a mature thriller with great performances and moments that make you truly jump out of your seat, this is the perfect film for a rainy summer night.