Toronto Film Review: The Awakening

Rich period setting and strong performances elevate English ghost yarn above the horror herd.

Rebecca Hall plays a ghost debunker who sees an actual ghost in director Nick Murphy's twisty, atmospheric fright flick.

A too-rare instance in which a gifted young actor signs on for a fright flick without coming away tainted, The Awakening places Rebecca Hall in a convincing historical setting and gives her more to do than widen her eyes in fear. Twisty and atmospheric, Nick Murphy's first feature is solidly commercial while offering enough Anglophilic local color to please the Masterpiece Theater crowd.

Hall plays Florence Cathcart, an author and investigator bent on ridding post-WWI London of ghost hoaxes and faux-psychic swindlers. Entering the film in the midst of a debunking sting, Hall's the kind of no-nonsense detective who might be the hero of a series of mystery novels. Hired to investigate a possibly ghost-related death at a boarding school in the country, she breaks out a fun toolkit of reactive chemical powders, trip wires and electromagnetics and delivers a Holmes-like explanation in short order.

But a funny thing happens before she can leave the campus with another victory in hand: she sees a ghost.

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With school out for the term, Florence explores the case while sharing the oversize manor with only a sad schoolmarm (Imelda Staunton, whose worried performance brings mystery and gravitas to the setting), a war-wounded history teacher (Dominic West), a nasty handyman and a student, Tom, who must stay through the holiday since he can't join his parents in India.

Instead of indulging in a long string of creep-out scenes, Awakening treats its scares like clues in a mystery while its detective -- suffering from wartime emotional baggage and the shock of finding herself on the other side of the "I know what I saw!" equation -- struggles to keep it together. It's not the most challenging part she has played, but the actress takes it seriously enough that we do, too.

The puzzle's solution borrows, though not too blatantly, from some more distinctive ghost movies, and Murphy's handling of the denouement may leave viewers unsure they understand exactly what happened. But with beautiful cinematography from Eduard Grau, restrained use of effects, and acting much better than it had to be, The Awakening gives thriller fans more than they're trained to expect.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production Company: Origin Pictures.
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton.
Director: Nick Murphy.
Screenwriters: Stephen Volk, Nick Murphy.
Producers: David M. Thompson, Sarah Curtis, Julia Stannard.
Executive producers: Jenny Borgars, Will Clarke, Olivier Courson, Joe Oppenheimer, Norman Merry, Carole Sheridan.
Director of photography: Eduard Grau.
Production designer: Jon Henson.
Music: Daniel Pemberton.
Costume designer: Caroline Harris.
Editor: Victoria Boydell.
Sales: StudioCanal.
No rating, 106 minutes.