A couple years ago, I joined my parents for an overnight ghost hunting adventure at the Egyptian Theatre in Dekalb, Illinois. One of the “professional ghost hunters” there explained that the reason ghosts seem to be more active at night is simply because that’s the time when we’re more quiet and open to notice the little noises and subtle anomalies that bear proof of their presence.
Someday in the near future, all ghost stories will necessarily be period pieces like The Awakening. There’s little room for true hauntings in the modern age of cell phones and digital cameras and so much noise. Our ghosts need for us all to shut up a bit and retreat back to the quiet life, lest we ignore them like so many ringtones and banner ads.
To experience The Awakening is to return to that time. In post-World War I Britain, a child dies at a boy’s boarding school and all the kids believe that a ghost is responsible. They call upon Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), a female Harry Houdini who busts seances and exposes supernatural hoaxes for a living, to investigate and set their minds at ease.
Initially unenthusiastic about the venture, she becomes more personally involved in the case as she begins to question her rationality.
Even in broad daylight, the vast and isolated mansion-turned-school exudes a menace of its own. The children are quietly fearful, turning peers into outcasts in true adolescent fashion under an old-fashioned disciplinarian system. Many of the boys are orphans. As the housekeeper explains, “I don’t think there is a place on Earth people understand loneliness better than here.”
Hall perfectly embodies Florence as a strong female ahead of her time, an “educated woman,” as folks keep reminding her. She’s written a widely acclaimed book, and most greet her with respect. Yet a few cracks in her tough exterior reveal a mysterious vulnerability beneath.
So far, this is probably the best film I have seen this season. A classic ghost story, character driven, and nearly perfect in every way. The writing is top-notch, full of surprises, as the plot twists and turns like an Agatha Christie novel. It’s an intimate story that is not afraid to be quiet - comfortable enough to avoid filling every second with chatter and exposition.
The Awakening completely took me in. So many modern horror films barrel race impatiently toward a finale. This one carefully probes the psyche of this house and all who inhabit it, brushing aside the cobwebs and dust to uncover unsettling new rooms and passageways.
I found the ending satisfying and touching in more ways than one. The best ghost stories focus less on the spirits and more about the people they torment - understanding that we are all haunted by something.