England was most certainly haunted in 1921, even for those who didn’t believe in an afterlife: the ghosts of the many millions of dead of World War I lingered in the air, if only figuratively. It’s in this inspired background that Nick Murphy — a veteran of British television making his feature debut — chose to set his elegantly creepy tale of a haunting that, wonder of wonders, one may approach equally well from the perspective of total supernatural belief or entrenched skepticism… as long as one does accept that the human mind, plagued by survivor’s guilt, is capable of playing powerful tricks. A century back (or almost) is also perfect for highlighting how radical is The Awakening’s protagonist, freethinker Florence Cathcart (the lovely Rebecca Hall: The Town): Sure, she is debunking a séance when we meet her — much to the grieving chagrin of some of its participants, who are not in a mood to listen to reason or logic or science — but then we witness her smoking! And wearing trousers! Cathcart is a maverick in ways that no male scientist of her time could have been. Murphy (with cowriter Stephen Volk) now gives Cathcart her most challenging case yet when schoolmaster Robert Mallory (Dominic West: Johnny English Reborn) asks her to hunt down the unpleasant spirit troubling the remote boys’ school he heads. Though she rejects the term “ghost hunter” (“You can’t hunt what doesn’t exist”) she takes the job, and discovers an all-male enclave — with the exception of dour housekeeper Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1) — full of all manner of secrets and deceits, any of which could serve to explain the psychological turmoil gripping the school without requiring a genuine spook. West is particularly effective as a Great War veteran just barely coping with his guilt, and there’s also sweet young Tom (Isaac Hempstead Wright), a student abandoned by his family over a holiday whom Cathcart befriends, having revealed her own family issues that echo his. The motif that opens the film in the séance scene — how do people deal with the aftermath of emotional trauma? — is reflected again at the end in such a way that even a resolute skeptic such as myself found uniquely sympathetic to believers. If you do see debunkery here — not everyone will — it is at least hard to see it as the unkind sort. Which is more generous than such a film might be.
viewed during the 55th BFI London Film Festival