And British chiller "The Awakening," while certainly commercial, is a more old-fashioned kind of ghost story, firmly of a piece with recent genre hits like "The Others" and "The Orphanage." With backing from BBC Films, and a strong cast led by Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton, it certainly seems to be on the classier side of the horror movie spectrum, and our hopes were high that it might provide a little change of pace. And so it did. The film, the debut from TV director Nick Murphy, has more than its share of flaws, but it also gets its balance of tones right, proving spooky, involving and occasionally resonant, while still managing to bring something new to a well-worn tale, and providing a terrific lead part for one of the most promising actresses of her generation.
In a Britain still deeply wounded from the effects of the First World War, Florence Cathcart (Hall) is an author who spends much of her time exposing would-be mediums and spiritualists in a nation where so many men have become ghosts, even if they're still alive. After taking down one such group of charlatans, she's approached by Robert Mallory (West), a history teacher at Rockwood, a boys' boarding school in the North of England, seeking her help. A boy in his care recently died, seemingly frightened to death by a ghost at the school, and the students are living in fear of the spirit. Florence is persuaded to join him, and swiftly finds a rational explanation, but left alone over the holidays with only Robert, the school's matron (Staunton) and Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright, the crippled Bran Stark from "Game of Thrones"), a boy whose parents are living in India, she discovers that she may have been too quick to dismiss the supernatural.
And despite the well-worn subject matter and setting, it feels fresh. Part of this is the zip that Murphy's direction gives it -- the handheld camerawork stops it feeling too staid -- the cutting is pacy, and the script, by Murphy and Stephen Volk (the latter of whom also penned William Friedkin's killer tree movie "The Guardian") is playful and witty when it needs to be.
But it's mostly down to Ms. Hall. Aside from the Woody surrogate in "Vicky Christina Barcelona," the actress hasn't had the chance to lead many movies yet, but she absolutely makes a case for it to happen more in the future. It's not exactly rare for a female character to be the lead of a horror film, but it's rare to have a character as interesting as Florence Cathcart at the center. A sort of post-suffragette feminist, clad in a trouser suit, she's fearless and fiercely intelligent, but deeply vulnerable too; stricken by an almost tangible grief for a lost love (something admirably never over-explained), she's erected a series of walls around her that come swiftly crumbling down when she arrives at Rockwood.
The film's taut running time comes with consequences however; there's a few fairly gaping plot holes, and it feels like there's material left on the cutting room floor that might have tied things up a little neater. Conversely, there's also an extraneous subplot involving the groundskeeper (Joseph Mawle, from "Red Riding") that never really goes anywhere, and that conclusion does tip over the edge into campiness, somewhat. But the film's flaws are outweighed by its atmospheric pleasures, pleasures that turn out to be disarmingly moving at the same time. [B]
This is an edited reprint of our review from the London Film Festival in 2011.