As the nights get longer and the winds pick up, few things are as gratifying as a truly good scary movie. But with the reliance on gore and shock in mainstream horror, it’s not always easy to find one that walks the line between viscerally scary and thoughtful. That’s a line walked carefully and brilliantly by 2011’s The Awakening, a classic thriller with engaging twists.
Released four years ago by BBC Films and Studiocanal, The Awakening boasts a stellar cast. Rebecca Hall stars as Florence Cathcart, an author and supernatural debunker helping combat the rise of spiritualists in 1920s England. She’s approached by Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a teacher at a boys’ prep school in the country, with a chilling account of a young ghost who may have been involved in the death of a student. Unconvinced, Cathcart agrees to investigate the school on the assumption that she’ll disprove the haunting ahead of the next term. But when she arrives, she finds her nerves and beliefs rattled by what she discovers.
The isolated and disciplinarian world of British boarding schools in the early 20th century offers endless fodder for tension. Here, the setting plays well into tropes — Mallory is a sympathetic teacher, while a colleague uses corporal punishment to discipline his charges. The students bully one another relentlessly, while the administration looks the other way. Echoing halls, violent paintings, and a shady groundskeeper who skulks around the woods at the edge of the school’s property round out the chilling locale.
Set in 1921, the film draws on the deep sense of loss and instability that confronted Britain after the First World War. In some ways, that particular time period invokes a harder to fathom pain, born of a culture that was grappling with the meaning of an unprecedented conflict and that faced another in just over a decade. Regret and mourning are at the forefront of the internal struggle for each character, be it Cathcart’s continued agony over an unnamed lover who died in the war, Mallory’s complicated sense of guilt for having survived, and groundskeeper Judd’s reactionary defensiveness over not having fought.
The general atmosphere of suppressed sadness, and the shared trauma of the war lend the film a tension that rests beyond the possible existence of ghosts. That the spirit haunting the house-turned-school has nothing at all to do with the First World War doesn’t feel like a mistake. Instead it lends an emotional weight to the deep need to find an answer to the haunting. If ghosts exist, is death forever? Do our memories haunt us beyond moment of quiet when we can’t keep them away, and what possible powers do the totems we cling to hold? For the characters in the film, bridging the gap between life and death has immediate consequence.
The most engaging part of the story, though, might be Florence Cathcart’s place in the world. An educated woman, she’s not an overly made-up lady playing at work. She’s in charge, delegating tasks to those around her, writing books and carving out a space for herself as a leading expert during a time when women were rarely given the honor. In brief scenes of sexuality, she’s shown as capable and unafraid, an equal to her partner. She’s a woman who stands out in her time, but it’s never turned into a punchline.
But while the tension keeps you on the edge of your seat and the film is thoroughly enjoyable, it takes a Bababook-style turn that doesn’t quite do the rest of the story justice. Things come together in a way that doesn’t feel quite right, although elements of the resolution are gratifying. In the end, the film hits the note that our past can haunt us, especially when we fail to confront it. While that’s a good lesson, it’s one that ends up being a bit on the nose for an otherwise subtle film.
WORDS BY: Bridey Heing
Bridey is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.