Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Awakening: A solid ghost story

N.B This contains spoilers

Co-scripted by first-time director Nick Murphy and Ghostwatch writer Stephen Volk, The Awakening is set in 1921, in an England still struggling to come to terms with the aftermath of the Great War. The opening sequence, while introducing the film’s main character, shows how the boom in mediumship during the period encouraged charlatans to take advantage of the bereaved. Florence Cathcart, played by Rebecca Hall, is a sceptical investigator, and author of the debunking book Seeing Through Ghosts, who attends the sitting. At this point she is a fictional counterpart to Rose Mackenberg, the “Spook Spy” who worked for Houdini. When she has enough evidence to show how the conjuring tricks are pulled, atypically for a séance involving the killing of a bird for its blood, she abruptly breaks up the proceedings. However, even at this early stage, we can see that underneath her brusquely crusading demeanour there is a vulnerable side. Challenged by a bereaved mother as the fraudsters are led away, Florence admits that she does not have children of her own, her accuser’s implied charge being that Florence cannot hope to understand a mother’s desire for consolation, even if it had been a false hope. For some, it seems, the illusion of contact is more important than the risk of deception. The encounter is clearly an unsettling one for Florence.

Despite her surface confidence and cool rationalism, she is fragile, highly-strung, and haunted by her own ghost, someone close who was killed in the war and whose cigarette case she carries as a totem (her smoking and predilection for trousers mark her as a modern miss). Exhausted by her efforts, depressed at the depths of human perfidy, and perhaps even secretly disappointed that the séance was fraudulent, she is therefore not in a sympathetic frame of mind when schoolteacher Robert Mallory (Dominic West) visits her to say that there has been a sudden death of a boy at his school. The boy had claimed to have seen a ghostly child left over from when the school was a private house, and seems to have died of fright, leaving the other pupils terrified. Robert says that he would like her to investigate. Initially reluctant, assuming deception and contagious hysteria in a hothouse environment, she does go with him, accompanied by a quantity of paraphernalia that would have put ghost-hunter extraordinaire Harry Price to shame.

Having toured the somewhat understaffed premises with Robert and the redoubtable matron, Maud (Imelda Staunton), and seen just how unforgiving a boarding school can be to the sensitive child, she sets up her gear and with Holmesian powers of deduction solves the matter of the pupil’s death in short order, seemingly bringing the mystery – and potentially the film – to an abrupt end. She also establishes that far from being accurate, the school motto, Semper Veritas, is a mark of hypocrisy. However, as one door closes, another opens, and she herself begins to see things which suggest a haunted mind in a haunted house. The school breaks for a week’s half-term, leaving her, Robert, Maud, the creepy war-shirking, gun-toting factotum Edward (Joseph Mawle) and one of the boys, Thomas (Isaac Hempstead Wright), whose parents live too far away for him to go home (only partially true as it transpires). Florence sets about solving the mystery, but as she is sucked into a narrative which ineluctably plays itself out in front of her, she can no longer be sure what is real and what is hallucination. As her certainties unravel, she becomes one of that tribe of sceptics who belatedly realise that there are more things than they had previously acknowledged in their philosophy, and that science is inadequate to understand them.

The influences on Murphy and Volk are many and obvious: The Devil’s Backbone (2001), The Others (2001), The Orphanage (2007), further back, the haunted house aspect of Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). It is reminiscent of The Sixth Sense (1999), with the twist of someone you assume is alive actually being dead. The bouncing ball evokes The Changeling (1980) and The Shining (1980). There is a sense that the ghost wants his sibling to play with him “forever and ever”, like the ‘twins’ want to with Danny in The Shining. The Awakening’s Rockwood School could easily be the twin of The Overlook Hotel. The piles of letters piled neatly on Florence’s study floor may be a reference to the Society for Psychical Research’s Edmund Gurney’s ‘filing’ system when he was working on Phantasms of the Living (1886). The idea of having lived in a house and forgetting was a device Agatha Christie used in her final Miss Marple story, Sleeping Murder (1976).

Clearly though, the work with which The Awakening most resonates is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) and the film adaptation The Innocents (1961). Florence’s name echoes that of Flora and there is a parallel brother and sister relationship, with the boy in each coming to a bad end. The set-up between Florence and Maud is similar to that between Miss Giddens and Mrs Grose, and in both the initially sympathetic older woman is shown as alienated by the younger’s behaviour. The history of the protagonists in The Awakening might even be construed as supplying a rationale for how Miles and Flora in The Turn of the Screw come to be in the care of their uncle. A subtle nod to The Innocents is the splash of water on a table, echoing Miss Jessel leaving a tear on the classroom desk, the point in the earlier film at which the psychological interpretation breaks down in favour of the paranormal.

The Awakening does not have the skilful ambiguity of the James story because it is clear early on that the haunting is real rather than in Florence’s mind, although as we find at the climax, much of what we had assumed to be veridical was actually her visions of past events as buried memories resurfaced. The poster’s “Sometimes dead does not mean gone”, is clear and does not help the authors’ intentions. However, the script introduces ambiguity in other ways. The moment when Robert goes to his room and speaks to someone (“she’s downstairs”), leaving us outside the door, implies that there is a plot against her by the other residents. The man in evening dress with a shotgun could be part of the conspiracy – perhaps, one speculates, by disgruntled Spiritualists wanting revenge for her relentless exposure of their practices – until it is shown on the photograph she develops that he is not visible despite her having seen him, tipping towards a possible verdict of derangement. There is a tease at the end of the film as to whether she is alive or dead: she is dressed in white, people she walks past ignore her, including the headmaster who is speaking about her at the time, and when she walks up behind Robert he says that he knows she is there, implying she is not visible. But the fact that she is leaving, by car, and talks of writing another book, seems to allow a single interpretation (Maud’s aim was to keep her there, after all), and the headmaster does only refer to the one death.

As well as a straightforward, or actually not so straightforward, ghost story, the writers have given a convincing portrait of the devastating impact of the war, how those who had survived it, whether at the front or at home, felt guilt and had their own ghosts to face, including coping with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder by self-harm. Even children are not spared, the teachers brutalised veterans, having possibly displaced women brought in for the duration, unable to connect emotionally with their charges and intolerant of perceived weakness. There are suggestions of repressed sexuality as well as repressed emotions, tapping into Freudian theories that were making an impact in the 1920s: Florence spying on Robert through a hole in the bathroom; the suggestion that when she herself is in the bath she is about to masturbate, until she thinks that she is being spied on; and when we find out her familial relationship to the spy it adds another layer to the interpretation. Fortunately, Florence is able to move beyond her mourning with assistance from Robert as they help each other with their emotional scars. The title, despite being much-used for films, is an apt one, representing Florence’s awakening from amnesia, her sexual awakening, and more broadly the slow awakening of the country from its collective nightmare.

There are puzzling weaknesses in the script. One is Maud’s characterisation, as it is unclear why she would have been so vehemently sceptical at the beginning. If her aim was to get Florence to remember her repressed trauma, and to be a companion to Tom, it would have made more sense for her to have been sympathetic to the idea that the place really was haunted. Her scepticism was not required to persuade Florence to visit the school as Robert, far from sceptical, managed to do that. It is also odd that Thomas should display so much fear. One may be surprised that Florence could have been directly responsible for a man’s death, even one who was assaulting her, and show so little emotion over it, when a theme of the film is the lessening of emotional numbness. If lonely children can see Thomas, as Maud suggests, why cannot the teachers, who seem as lonely as the boys, and particularly Robert, who shows some sensitivity, and sympathy to the idea of ghosts? Why does Robert tell Florence that there are only three of them there when there are four adults? On a first viewing these reservations are glossed over by the speed of the exposition in the final section, but they leave a nagging feeling that the bulk of the effort went into keeping the twists coherent at the expense of characterisation, and the suspicion that there may have been a few cheats along the way. This is certainly a film which rewards intense concentration, and a second viewing to see how the twists work.

The film is beautifully shot with good production values. The grey monochrome palette is a clichéd device, but the contrasting warmth introduced at the end when the weight has lifted – we suddenly seem to have changed seasons – works well. The atmosphere created by lighting and camerawork is suitably creepy, using shadows and darkness to generate fear and menace, effectively combining the unease that accompanies going into the dark on your own with jump-in-your-seat scares. Unfortunately the music is distracting, opting for overemphatic when silence and ambient sounds would have worked at least as well (a lesson Murphy could have learned from The Innocents). This is an old-fashioned creepy ghost story, and that is not a pejorative verdict. Despite it being a BBC film, it is worth seeing on the big screen to allow immersion in the gloomy atmosphere. Or wait for it to come on television, and watch it on your own with the lights off.