Observation: Between 1914 and 1919 war and influenza have claimed more than a million lives in Britain alone.

Conclusion: This is a time for ghosts.

2012, Nick Murphy

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Continuing the great streak of horror films we’ve been treated to these past few years, Nick Murphy’s The Awakening is a gothic tale of the supernatural that is set in England in 1921. Rebecca Hall stars as Florence Cathcart, a very strong-willed woman who makes her living (and wrote a book about) debunking hoaxes of the otherworldly nature. After her most recent success at exposing a group of frauds, she returns home and is greeted by Robert Mallory (Dominic West) at her doorstep. He works at a boarding school where a child has died and there have long been unexplained sightings of the potential ghost of another deceased boy from several years ago.

Mallory brings Florence to the school, where she sets out to prove herself right yet again, that the supernatural doesn’t exist. Murphy, who co-wrote the film with Stephen Folk, takes us on a winding journey into this mysterious school, complete with thrills and plenty of suspense. They take an interesting approach to the structure of it all, having us believe that things are all settled before having the rug pulled out from under us as we fall further down the rabbit hole. This technique could have caused the film to drag, but rather it gives a vivaciousness to the proceedings, as every twist brings us further into the emotional struggle that Florence endures.

Murphy shows a strong voice as a horror filmmaker, building the frights through gradual suspense as opposed to one-shot jump maneuvers. In the way that many older horror films work, it builds effortlessly into a final act that ratchets up the tension to full gear, keeping you pinned to the back of your seat with your eyes open wide. I love the gothic setting of this, and Murphy and his actors really thrive in it. West does strong work in his supporting role, as do Imelda Staunton and Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran Stark from Game of Thrones) but the film really would have been nothing without the tremendous work of Rebecca Hall in the lead.

Hall has really come almost out of nowhere in the past half of a decade, and she has quickly risen to the top of our current crop of great actresses. She has a unique, incredibly compelling screen presence that she brings with her to every role and this is just another one of the many examples of her great diversity. It’s also her first opportunity to lead a film entirely on her own and she delivers in every single way. Her Cathcart is loaded with personal demons that compel her on this journey into the supernatural world, as her stubbornness to disprove these beings is ultimately shown as her trying to prove them as realities in the hopes that she can reunite with a deceased lover, and Hall brings that emotion with her into each scene. She carries this film with the skill of someone who has been working in film for many years longer than her, and it further solidifies her as one of the most promising actresses emerging in film at the moment. An excellent performance in a great tale of gothic horror.

B-

Film #143 of The 365 Film Challenge.