In a nutshell: Ghouls and boys come out to play…

Popcorn rating: 4/5

November’s the perfect month for ghost stories. An eerie mist hangs in the air, trees clutch skeletally at their last dying leaves, darkness creeps up on us ever earlier each night… it’s all conducive to being gleefully scared shitless. And The Awakening, released in cinemas last weekend, does exactly that.

The Awakening is a proper, old-fashioned ghost story set in 1921, with an emphasis on atmosphere, suggestion, beautifully haunting cinematography and well-timed shocks rather than gore and effects. Rebecca Hall is likeable as bluestocking Florence Cathcart, who could easily have been insufferable in the hands of a lesser actor; Dominic West turns in a typically convincing performance as a teacher battling shellshock, and Imelda Staunton is perfectly cast as a maternal school matron. Pale, doe-eyed whippersnapper Isaac Hempstead Wright is also impressive as boarding school misfit Tom.

I won’t claim The Awakening is groundbreaking. The twists are clever, but hardly revolutionary, and much of the creepiness comes from fairly standard devices – ghostly images in old photos, spectral children, secret passages and vaguely sinister objects appearing in odd places. However, this doesn’t make them any less unsettling, and there are original touches scattered throughout too – one particular scene with a dolls’ house made my skin crawl.

Moreover, the references to the First World War are well-placed: as well as the ghostly child purported to be haunting a remote boarding school, the universal spectre of the war hovers over everyone. There’s schoolteacher Mallory, with his survivor’s guilt and his residual stammer. There’s Florence, emotionally crippled by the death of her ex-fiancé. There’s even handyman Judd, rendered bitter and resentful by his own cowardice. Lest we forget, indeed.

As the nerve-shredding chills in the final third of the film build to a climax, it might be fair to say that things are a wee bit drawn out and overblown. But frankly, I didn’t care. The Awakening isn’t quite The Others, but it’s got great performances, a strong script and enough jump-out-of-your-seat moments to keep you thoroughly entertained on a dark evening. According to Peter Ackroyd’s recent book, The English Ghost, the English produce more ghost stories than any other nation in the world, and The Awakening – a BBC Films production – does a fine job of upholding that tradition.

Reviewer: JoSheppard

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