What is it about a ghost story that’s so compelling, especially the kind of movie that strokes the snob factor by unfolding in a gorgeous-if-bleak English manor during a past era, when people wore intricately fastened, intrinsically erotic layers of clothing? “The Awakening” piles all these elements together in ways that make for a sure-fire first hour, even if you might (rightly) suspect that everything will go wobbly by the end.
Leached of color and elegantly shot, the film draws on elements from “The Others,” “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Diabolique,” “The Innocents,” “The Orphanage,” “The Sixth Sense” and even a peppery dash from “The Shining.” That’s not to say that “The Awakening” is badly derivative; it’s just that it’s hard for a filmmaker doing a haunted-house film not to cherry-pick the best bits from haunted-house antecedents.
A razor-smart supporting player in movies ranging from “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” to “The Town,” Rebecca Hall here takes the lead. She’s Florence Cathcart, a headstrong woman who’s famous in London in 1921 for debunking the tambourine-on-strings charlatans of the era’s séance chambers. Her book, “Seeing Through Ghosts,” is a hit with the public, even at a time when many of them are seeking comfort in spiritualism after losing loved ones in World War I.
Florence’s own fiancé died in the trenches. There’s ambivalence in her expression as she exposes, in one parlor after the next, the absence of any communication with a Great Beyond. Part of her would like to believe that her soldier is somewhere else, somewhere eternal. But she’d never admit it.
Her no-nonsense, agnostic front holds firm when a man named Mallory (Dominic West, aka McNulty of “The Wire”) appears on her Mayfair doorstep. He’s a schoolmaster at a country house turned boarding school, where one of the boys has recently died, supposedly of fright. There’s a rumor that another boy, years ago, died there when the house was a private residence and stays on as a malevolence, stalking the halls. Mallory wants Florence to hunt down this ghost.
She responds, “You can’t hunt what doesn’t exist.” But she accepts the challenge, though the movie suggests that she’s intrigued less by anything disembodied than by Mallory’s quite tangible body.
“The Awakening’s” dialogue tends to be smart and steely. One of its screenwriters is Stephen Volk, creator of the British series “Afterlife,” about a blue-collar psychic (the great Lesley Sharp) who would happily live without her ghost-seeing gifts. The series was willing to go to very dark places. “The Awakening” also goes to dark places and shares with “Afterlife” its greatest strength: a palpable mood of loss and grief. The repercussions of WWI — not only Florence’s loss of her soldier, but Mallory’s guilt as a survivor of the trenches — are more than enough to give the film a context and driving plot elements. Too bad that much of this set-up turns out to be something of a red herring.
Halfway through, Florence (is the name an homage to credulous psychic Florence Tanner of “The Legend of Hell House”?) solves the mystery that brought her to the school. She employs Sherlock Holmes-like deduction that seems to eliminate the supernatural. Yet she lingers on, determined to follow her spidey-sense that maybe there is something inexplicable happening. Then she seems to go totally crazy-pants.
Florence has been such a strong, acerbic character until this point that it’s a shame when she’s reduced to an unhinged mess. The change betrays the character. Also, the movie’s multiple climaxes feel like semi-betrayals of the audience’s faith. A giant revelation, linked to an equally big one that’s sprung just before it, feels unprepared for by the script. The big reveal doesn’t fall into place with that “oh, of course” sensation that occurs in the best ghost stories. “The Awakening” goes a twist (or two) too far and breaks its own spell. (I watched it twice to confirm that, yeah, it doesn’t stick the landing.)
Still, Hall and West are both strong and committed. But the movie’s MVP is Imelda Staunton as the school’s matron, Maud. A wee thing, with hair as gray as her uniform, she’s an emblem of common sense under stress who welcomes Florence as if she were royalty. As usual, whether as back-alley abortionist Vera Drake or as Harry Potter’s pinkest persecutor, Staunton gives grounding to a movie that might otherwise completely fly apart.
“The Awakening.” With Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton. Directed by Nick Murphy. Rated R. 102 minutes. At metro theaters.