Last night to see The Awakening, a British film about a ghost. The best thing about it is the central performance by Rebecca Hall, an actor whose career I have followed with interest ever since her rather intense and original portrayal of Sarah, the put-upon wife in the 2006 film of The Prestige. (You can read more about The Prestige in a moment.) Hall is a beautiful young woman, with an intelligent look and an active and subtly interrogative use of her eyes, that makes everything she does distinctive and memorable. If she is not yet a major star she soon will be.
The film is respectably and professionally made, backed by BBC Films and StudioCanal, and it looks good: muted colour, appropriate use of shallow focus, a tremendous stately-home location (Manderston House, near Berwick).
The weaknesses in the film are many. Least of them, perhaps, is the use of loud bangs on the soundtrack whenever anything sudden occurs, including falling in and out of water! All that a sudden surprise can do to the audience is make everyone jump — it doesn’t create a sense of menace, or fear, or even excitement. It just makes you jump, and after the third or fourth time you can’t help feeling that you are being manipulated into a response rather than being drawn into it by the excellence of the story, the acting or the writing.
Excellence is in short supply in The Awakening. The script is minimalist. The schoolboys who are at the centre of the story (the death of one of them after allegedly seeing a ghost traumatizes the others, and this is the event that initiates the main story) are treated as a bunch of diminutive extras in Eton collars and 1920s’ haircuts. We know nothing about any of them, and can barely tell them apart. They soon depart for half-term hols, leaving behind one of their number, who the film-makers apparently did not realize then obviously becomes Suspect No. 1. Such dialogue that exists between adults is cursory and plot-motivated. There are directorial touches that briefly suggest a greater depth in the characters (in particular, the briefly seen sadist, McNair), but the rest are shallow. Dominic West as a WW1 veteran with a limp, a stammer and a horrid bubo growing on his thigh, is merely adequate in an underwritten part. Imelda Staunton plays the school’s matron-cum-housekeeper, who exists inside a swarm of mumsy clichés, so that the moment she appears you know she is not at all what she wants us to think she is. Even the part played by Rebecca Hall is so underwritten that much of the film’s action depends on Ms Hall running around a lot in slightly dishevelled clothes, breathing stertorously and shouting in fear and/or anger. In addition, the dramatic integrity of her part depends entirely on our suspending disbelief that what happened to her as a child has been TOTALLY forgotten.
The script (co-written by Stephen Volk and director Nick Kirby) is not just minimalist, it’s extremely derivative. All the way through you keep being reminded of other films. At the start of the main story, for instance, there is a picturesquely photographed steam-train journey through lovely countryside, and you think in a bored way of Harry Potter. The great grey mansion where most of the story is set simply reminds you of a hundred other period films made in country estates, and you know that the catering tent, production vans and the spare bits of camera and lighting equipment are parked out of sight on the other side of the house. There is what seems at first an effective use of a dolls-house reproduction of the big house, which apparently contains tableaux of key events in the story, and then you remember the much less explicable, and therefore more sinister, scale miniature building in The Shining (1980). There are, incidentally, many more small details to remind you of The Shining. The overall approach to the visibility/invisibility of the dead is an unashamed lift from M. Night Shyamalan’s much over-rated The Sixth Sense (1999). So it goes.
Most of all, though, the film reminded me of the 2007 Spanish/Mexican film, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, The Orphanage. Both films deal with a beautiful young woman going to or returning to a large country house, now in up-dated use (a school, an orphanage). Both films assume that small children are inherently sinister or frightening. Both have scenes of horror in which old mysteries are apparently re-enacted. Both depend on the reality of ghosts. And both include the logic-defying scene in which the central character discovers a previously unknown flight of steps, leading down into a dark and gloomy cellar where many horrible things seem likely to be lurking. Logic suggests that in the state of fright being endured by the young woman, just about the last thing on Earth that she is likely to do is start going down those steps while the menacing music rises around her.
And speaking of derivative, I’d like to record that pp. 62-66 of the first edition of my novel The Prestige (1995), and pp. 54-58 of the Gollancz Masterworks edition of the same book (2010), contain a detailed description of a fraudulent spiritualist meeting, where an elderly and recently bereaved lady is duped into believing that she can be put back in touch with her dear departed loved one. The fraud is violently exposed: the heavy blind keeping out the daylight is roughly pulled aside, the magician’s cheap tricks are sensationally exposed as the charlatanry they are. This scene was for some reason never used in Christopher Nolan’s film adaptation of the novel, but it plays a prominent part in the story of the novel. And it does, funnily enough, play a prominent part in The Awakening. It comes first in the film and is the scene by which the Rebecca Hall character’s deep scientific scepticism about ghosts is illustrated. Such exposées of spiritualist fraud are of course nothing new: Harry Houdini quite often broke into fake séances, and a couple of years ago Derren Brown was attempting something similar on his Channel 4 programme. However, I still felt that it was a reminder too far. It revealed this film’s unoriginal approach both to the subject of ghosts, and, much more seriously, to the making of film. Rebecca Hall deserves more original material to work in. She was good in The Prestige — pity she had to do it twice.