- Last Updated: 10:51 AM, August 17, 2012
- Posted: 10:26 PM, August 16, 2012
It’ll keep you up. Running time: 102 minutes. Rated R (disturbing imagery). At the Empire, the Union Square, others.
A haunted, post-WWI England is the setting for “The Awakening,” an enjoyably old-fashioned ghost story in the vein of “The Others” and “The Orphanage.”
Brisk, no-nonsense Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) has made her name exposing the kind of sham seances that exploded in popularity during this era, coinciding with the country’s widespread death toll from war and influenza.
The self-possessed Hall is well-suited to this proto-feminist role, smoking and rolling her eyes as the pasty old men around her exclaim, for what is clearly the millionth time, “An educated woman!” as if she were a zoo animal.
When a schoolmaster (Dominic West) from Rookwood, a countryside boarding school, asks for her help investigating a strange death, she’s eager to prove that the institute’s mythical ghost — said to be a young boy with a twisted face — is nothing more than a long-standing prank gone wrong.
First-time feature director Nick Murphy sticks to classic tropes but deploys them expertly, knowing the real shivers are in the details: the flute-like sound of young boys’ singing voices bouncing off cold stone walls, a lone teddy-bear eye, the echo of tubercular coughing, a dollhouse with mysteriously changing figurines.
You’ve also got to have a house matron who probably knows more than she’s saying. This time it’s Maud (Imelda Staunton), whose young charge, Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright, “Game of Thrones”) is the unfortunate boy who can’t go home for the holidays.
Penned by Murphy with Stephen Volk, the man who freaked out the UK in the early ’90s with his BBC movie “Ghostwatch,” the film nicely intertwines a growing sense of dread about the mysterious goings-on in the rambling old building with the pervasive melancholy of the time: Florence carries a sad secret related to a dead soldier, while West’s Robert Mallory tortures himself for being a survivor.
It’s only at the 11th hour that things get a little silly, but Hall generally keeps her cool. It’s refreshing to see a horror story heroine who doesn’t dissolve into hysterical shrieks in the third act, even if the reveal is a bit of a howler.