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British Cinema, Melodrama

The Awakening (UK 2011)

Rebecca Hall (Florence) and Dominic West (Robert) on the moors above the school.

Rebecca Hall (Florence) and Dominic West (Robert) on the moors above the school.

I missed this film in cinemas and I was grateful for a TV screening that fitted into the ‘Christmas ghost story’ slot. The production was part-financed by BBC Films so it may be repeated in future Christmas schedules. The title refers to something repressed by the central character, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), a war widow and an educated and independent young woman (with plenty of money) in London in 1921. After the successful publication of her book about ‘ghost-hunting’ she is employed as a freelance investigator and the film opens with a set piece exposé of a fraudulent medium. But then Florence receives a visit from Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a teacher from a boarding prep school in Cumbria where a young boy has died in mysterious circumstances in what is believed to be a haunted building. Reluctantly, she agrees to travel north. What then transpires is an interesting drama involving mystery, romance and something which the rationalist Ms Cathcart is forced to come to terms with.

On the whole I enjoyed this first feature by director Nick Murphy who also co-wrote the film with the more experienced Stephen Volk. The weakest section for me was the opening up until the arrival at the school. The séance scene worked well but once outside the house I suddenly felt plunged into ‘BBC costume drama London’. Realist aesthetics in British film are so problematic. Recreations of 1920s/30s London always tend to use the same few ‘preserved’ streets which are so carefully ‘dressed’ and so clean that they look unreal. This was aggravated by the overall colour palette of the film with its almost bleached and subdued range. The squares (around Regent’s Park, I think) of white-painted houses positively gleamed in the sunlight – much as they have in countless TV series and several other films. This was then followed by the most picturesque train journey, actually through Scotland (Creative Scotland was another funder) – looking like an outtake from Harry Potter. Fortunately, once the narrative deposited the audience at the school (an amalgam of Scottish stately homes) the genre tropes kicked into gear and Eduard Grau’s cinematography and David Pemberton’s score became much more acceptable. All of this might be put in perspective by comparing the film with Hammer’s The Woman in Black (2012), which faced with a similar narrative set just a few years earlier, goes for broke with Gothic expressionism.

The Awakening is perhaps trying to distance itself from the heavily Gothic trappings and, unconsciously or not, links itself to the post World War I dramas about loss, trauma, grieving etc. (I was reminded Regeneration, the 1997 adaptation of Pat Barker’s novel.) Nevertheless, The Awakening mixes elements easily identifiable from three classic films: The Innocents (UK 1961), The Others (Spain/US 2001) and El orfanato (The Orphanage, Spain 2007). Thus we have an emotionally stressed young woman, a child/children and mysterious servants in a remote house. Murphy and Volk juggle these elements quite well and deliver an enigmatic but satisfying ending. Rebecca Hall has to carry the narrative drive and she does so magnificently. Again I was a little unsure at first about her character who seemed just too ‘modern’ in speech and behaviour, but as the narrative moved more towards melodrama she grew into the part very well. Dominic West is very good as well (though disconcertingly he looks exactly as he does in the 2011-2 TV series The Hour, set in the 1950s – whereas Hall I saw in Parade’s End (2012) set in roughly the same period). The other leading players include Imelda Staunton as the school’s matron, Shawn Dooley as another (damaged) teacher and Isaac William Hempstead as one of the boys (he’s since appeared in Game of Thrones).

awakening_indexThe Awakening isn’t a masterpiece like each of the three titles listed above, but it is an interesting attempt to re-work the same elements and to draw on a different notion of national trauma – something perhaps worth researching further and comparing to the importance of the ‘disappeared’ in Francoist Spain which informs El orfanato. The Lumière Database entry on the film reveals that although business was weak in the UK, it was much better in several other European markets – Spain matching the UK and Italy recording double the number of admissions. Russia and Poland also chipped in. Unfortunately, DVD figures are harder to find but there was a release in the  US and in Japan (see the poster which emphasises the Gothic heroine).

I hope that the film doesn’t disappear and that it generates interest from scholars.

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