x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The Awakening: Rebecca Hall shines in her first leading role

This film might not bring anything new to the table, but it's a worthy addition to the horror genre.

Dominic West, left, as Robert Mallory and Rebecca Hall as Florence Cathcart in The Awakening.
Dominic West, left, as Robert Mallory and Rebecca Hall as Florence Cathcart in The Awakening.

The Awakening
Director: Nick Murphy 
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton
***

As The Woman in Black, Daniel Radcliffe's first post-Harry Potter excursion, has been demonstrating in recent weeks across the US and Europe, give audiences a good, old-fashioned ghost story with a solid narrative, compelling lead character and well-crafted scares and they'll turn out in droves.

A sequel has just been announced, so it seems like perfect timing for the arrival of The Awakening. But while it strives to quench similar thirsts (also taking place in a haunted gothic pile, albeit in post-First World War Britain rather than Victorian times and containing a child rather than an adult ghost), this film is less likely to spawn a franchise. That said, it's a worthy addition to the genre, milder in frights than Radcliffe's spectral outing but richer in storytelling.

At The Awakening's heart is a classy central performance from Rebecca Hall. She might not be a star of Radcliffe's stature but she is a clever, bright-eyed actress who has honed her craft on the London and Broadway stages and lent polished support to films such as Vicky Cristina Barcelona and The Town. Her spiky intelligence and willowy appeal have set Hall on an upwards trajectory and The Awakening is her first lead role.

She plays Florence Cathcart, a spiritualist hoax-buster whose strong, capable exterior masks a wounded woman burdened by a tragic past and forced to confront her own ghostly scepticisms when Dominic West's ex-soldier-turned-schoolmaster asks her to investigate a haunting at his boys' boarding school. Embracing the gutsy spirit of an enlightened woman for her time, a Cambridge-educated scientist and author who – shock horror! – wears trousers, Hall is a perfect fit for the themes of loss, grief and repression that the first-time director Nick Murphy sets out to explore in The Awakening when not firing up the creep factor. The terrain Murphy treads has been well trampled in recent years by the likes of The Orphanage and although he's not bringing anything new to the table, he does tell the story with poise and composure.

Elegantly evoking both the 1920s setting and the deep scars etched on to the British psyche by the First World War, Murphy allows The Awakening to unfold at a stately, measured pace that some viewers might find too slow-moving for a housebound horror. Some of the ingredients, too, are so shopworn they appear as musty as the wig sitting atop Imelda Staunton's head. As the school's twitchy, stern-faced nurse who spends far too much time lurking in dark corridors, she might as well be wearing a sandwich board that reads, "To solve mystery, follow me". Toss in antique tripwire traps, spooky dolls' houses filled with creepy knitted characters and a leering groundsman, and familiarity might be in danger of breeding contempt were it not for Hall's feisty presence and some jittery atmospherics.

The Awakening ends up getting snared in a narrative muddle towards the end and its scares are less hair-raising than The Woman in Black's, but ultimately it still comes off as a decent stab at reviving the handsome and thoughtful high-end horrors of old.

artslife@thenational.ae