Thursday, October 04, 2012

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #2: The Awakening

From its opening scenes, something about ‘The Awakening’ bugged me. It didn’t take long to put my finger on it. The film is set in the 1920s (its big thematic preoccupation is the aftermath of the Great War) but the attitudes and mannerisms of many of the characters didn’t seem coterminous with that period of time. In the main it’s little things, but cumulatively there are so many of them that it becomes an annoyance. And that’s without taking into account massive flubs like a reference to a school being in Cumbria (the district didn’t come into existence until 1974). 

Still, there was enough in Rebecca Hall’s taut performance and the slow-burn chills of the first act for me to sideline these misgivings. Hall plays Florence Cathcart, an author who specialises in debunking the paranormal (in the opening scene, she assists the police in exposing a medium’s fraudulence). Still grieving a sweetheart lost in the war, she represses her emotions by rigid commitment to her work. Accepting an assignment to investigate a haunting at a boy’s preparatory school – re: the kids’ dialogue, would “ghost hunter” and “scab” have been in a middle class 10-year-old boy’s vocabulary in the early 1920s? – she finds her belief in science and rationalism sorely tested.

Despite the anachronisms, director Nick Murphy – who co-wrote with Stephen Volk – does some interesting things, particularly in portraying the school masters as something of a dysfunctional survivors club. Factoring in Florence’s emotional scars and the contrapuntal character of a groundsman who faked disability to evade the draft, ‘The Awakening’ flirts with the concept of survivor’s guilt. Later, Murphy seems to be hinting that the title is a reference to his heroine’s emotional awakening after years of self-repression and reaches a point where the paranormal aspects could viably and contextually have served as an extended metaphor for this theme and where the actual danger comes from the psyche rather than the spirit world.

And had this been the case, ‘The Awakening’ could have been a damn good movie. But Murphy swerves away from this potential conclusion, almost as if he’s realised that he’s making a scary movie, goddamn it, and the audience are going to get all the creepy shit he can throw at them.

Not that there’s anything wrong with creepy shit – hell, this is the inaugural review in my third annual 13 for Halloween retrospective – but every bit of creepy shit ‘The Awakening’ has to offer is derivative. This is the other thing about the film that bugged me. There’s a roughly three minute sequence where Florence prowls the deserted corridors of the school that happily plagiarises ‘The Orphanage’, ‘Deep Red’ and ‘Sainte-Ange’. And not in a good Tarantino-esque homage/assimilation kind of way. Murphy’s borrowings are more along the lines of “I’m gonna rip off some foreign movies and keep my fingers crossed that the majority of moviegoers are put off by subtitles and won’t have seen them”.

I’m prepared to bet that, in the case of ‘Sainte-Ange’ he was also counting on the obscurity value. ‘The Awakening’ doesn’t just steal from Pascal Laugier’s debut; it fucking ram-raids it! ‘The Awakening’ makes wholesale appropriations: it’s set in a school; a major set piece has the children leaving with only a handful of characters remaining including a creepy matron; there’s wan, brunette heroine who slowly unravels due to a combination of supernatural occurrences and a trauma in her recent past; the aftermath of conflict (First World War here, WWII in Laugier’s film) is crucial to the story. Beyond this thematic checklist, it’s the imagery that’s so strikingly similar. Watch the two films back to back and you’d think that large sections of ‘The Awakening’ were a re-edit of ‘Saint-Ange’.

For the defence: ‘The Awakening’ boasts well nuanced performances from Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton. That the latter, whose performances are often OTT – even in such acclaimed fare as Mike Leigh’s ‘Vera Drake’ – does restrained and controlled work here is testament to Murphy’s skills as an actor’s director. Eduard Grau’s cinematography achieves the feeling of a sepia photograph in a film shot in colour (Grau also lensed ‘A Single Man’ and ‘Buried’, both of which depend, albeit very differently, on a specific visual approach). And there are some genuinely effective moments, most notably Florence’s discovery of a doll’s house containing tableaux of everything she’s just experienced in the preceding moments. It’s a kicker of a scene: audacious, chilling, perfectly executed. It’s a tantalising glimpse of what ‘The Awakening’ could have been.

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