Wake Up and Smell the Ectoplasm

THE AWAKENING — not the Chuck Heston mummy film with no mummy — a new ghost story from the writer of Ghostwatch and Ken Russell’s GOTHIC, starring flavours-of-the-month Rebecca Hall and Dominic West. Just after WWI, a celebrated debunker is called to a boy’s school where reports of strange phenomena have the pupils terrified…

Fiona reckons that the ghost story may be the UK’s next happening genre — here’s hoping it doesn’t get done to death the way the gangster film did before her screenplay WHISPER sees the light of day… THE AWAKENING has several moderately successful elements: a twisty, keep-you-guessing plot with only the odd hole or dead end; nice period ambience with a slightly predictable desaturated weak-tea filter look; good shocks and suspense but not quite the sheer terror of the original TV Woman in Black or THE HAUNTING.

The excellence derives mainly, I think, from the principle cast, who add vigour to decent-if-uninspired directorial choices. Dominic West manages to convincingly inhabit the stiffness and stuffiness of a 1919 chap, making you feel his humanity through the rigid personality armour. Rebecca Hall is something else again, a startlingly modern presence — the effect is as if everybody else has rehearsed the thing to a bright sheen, and she’s walked in with the part memorized but no idea what anybody else is going to do, so she’s looking around her at the other players and her face is saying “My, you’re a bit strange, aren’t you?” (I’m not suggesting this is how the film was made, although it suddenly seems like a good idea.) She’s the embodiment of Renoir’s parable about always leaving a door open on the set so that life can enter your film. Here, the door is a beautiful young woman.

She’s also a good, tasteful scene-stealer: she has a Peter Lorre attitude to furniture — it is To Be Perched On. You automatically get the audience’s eye if you misuse the couch and sit on its arm instead of its seat. She’s burning off so much natural interior light that Volk’s literate, period-accented dialogue sounds quite normal on her lips. West carries his own talk with seething manly intensity, which leaves Imelda Staunton to stagger slightly beneath the weight of her stylised verbiage. Isaac Hempstead Wright plays the requisite spooky kid who isn’t really spooky at all — believable, not too precocious, with an open, appealing face. He’s terrific.

It’s a creditable film, a genre piece that doesn’t feel hidebound by the conventions, but it could stand to be bolder in its choices — the choral music, mood lighting and misty atmosphere are all perfectly sound, but inclining towards cliché. Thank Beelzebub for Hall, who carries with her The Unexpected.

6 Responses to “Wake Up and Smell the Ectoplasm”

  1. I’ll try to see anything in which the remarkable Ms. Hall plays a substantial role — especially if she’s cast opposite Scarlett Johannson as in VICKI CRISTINA BARCELONA and THE PRESTIGE.

  2. It’s weird that I’ve seen her in so much: FROST/NIXON on a plane, Red Riding on TV, and THE PRESTIGE at the cinema. And THE TOWN on a whim. And for a while it would take me half a movie to work out I’d seen her before, she’s so good with accents.

  3. I wasn’t that interested until you mentioned that The Awakening was written by Stephen Volk, which is something that had passed me by. He always writes wonderfully over-the-top material!:

    Ghostwatch is still very amusing and a great satire, both on BBC television (the way it filmed its studio programmes and the cast made up of television presenters adding to the verisimilitude) and of exploitation of horrific events by the media in general:

    Volk also wrote The Guardian for William Friedkin, better known as the British-nanny-feeding-babies-to-bloodthirsty-trees-in-Pagan-ritual movie (which is still more plausible than The Exorcist!)

  4. I don’t think The Guardian is anyone’s finest hour, but I don’t think it was Volk’s preferred version of the script, either. Friedkin should take the rap for that one. It may be no sillier at base than The Exorcist but it’s a lot less compelling as you watch.

  5. I don’t know about compelling – The Guardian was entertainingly goofy throughout while I fell asleep the first two times I tried to watch the Exorcist!

  6. A friend said of The Exorcist, “It’s not that bothered if you’re watching or not,” which can be refreshing in today’s eager-to-please cinematic landscape.

    But nobody tunes out when there’s a rampaging demonic tree, that’s for sure. Just ask the makers of The Wizard of Oz.

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