Awakening, The (2012)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/30/12 21:40:00

2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

The opening scenes of the new British spook story "The Awakening," while not staggeringly original in and of themselves, put enough of a spin on well-worn material to make it seem as if it might have a little more to offer viewers than the same old stuff that they have seen countless times before. Alas, someone clearly had a failure of nerve along the way because long before the end of the first reel, it has already regressed into just another derivative and increasingly hackneyed variation on a painfully familiar theme that will put most people to sleep instead of scaring them in the slightest.

Set in 1921, a time when England responded to the horrifying human losses of World War I with a turn towards spiritualism, the film stars Rebecca Hall as Florence, a woman who has made a career out of exposing phony spiritualists out to exploit that grief for a quick buck by claiming to be able to contact ghosts. She is contacted by a teacher (Dominic West) from a remote boarding school where a student has just died, supposedly after encountering the ghost of a child that is rumored to haunt the place. With the aid of the teacher and the school's kindly maid (Imelda Staunton), Florence sets off to uncover what she assumes is nothing more than another student playing a prank that has spiraled out of control, only to discover that there may be some paranormal activity going on after all and that may even have something to do with a long-forgotten event from her past that continues to haunt her.

As I said, the early scenes are the best as the film adds a couple of interesting wrinkles to the usual character of the professional doubter who begins to suspect that there may indeed be such things as ghosts and spirits after all--not only is Florence a skeptic at a time when most bereaved people preferred to cling to the comfort that there was indeed some kind of existence after death (after exposing one such scam, it is the victim who winds up slapping her in rage for helping to destroy her faith in this regard), she is also an educated woman of science in a time when such people were few, far between and usually looked upon with scorn. Once she arrives at the school, however, her keen intellect seems to fly right out the window and despite all her fancy investigative equipment, she turns into just another dimwit tiptoeing through dark corridors and jumping/screaming at the slightest noise or movement. All of this is handled by debuting director Nick Murphy in a blandly efficient manner that essentially copies elements from too many other movies to name here without contributing anything distinctive of its own. The closest it gets to being memorable comes at the finale and that is only because Murphy and writer Stephen Volk apparently had a surplus of extraordinarily awful endings to choose from and boldly decided to deploy all of them.

If there is one aspect to "The Awakening"--an ironic title for a work that is so relentlessly humdrum--that does sort of work, it is the performance by Rebecca Hall as Florence. Although not yet a household name (except in cooler households, of course), Hall has quietly been building up a resume of strong supporting turns in films such as "The Prestige," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and "The Town" and will no doubt be hailed as the next big thing next year when "Iron Man 3" comes out. Yes, she is easy on the eyes but she also has a keen intelligence that comes through loud and clear in her performances and that is especially the case here. This isn't her best work by a long shot and I suspect that her decision to take on the part was born less out of the quality of the screenplay than by the chance to appear in a film where she played the central character for once. However, even after the film as a whole has given up the ghost, so to speak, she is still there giving it her all and even if the movie as a whole is generally lackluster, she alone gives it whatever spirit it does possess

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