As Florence investigates the ghostly happenings at Rockwood School, she’s forced confront her past. The titular “awakening” not only refers to the restless spirits trapped in limbo, but to the transformation that Florence undergoes in order to exorcise her own demons.
Hall performs with fearsome intelligence and emotional insight, and her Florence is a formidable, independent woman. While she might be a little too ‘modern’ to be authentically 1920s, her performance is full of subtlety and charm, and crackling with chemistry.
“I hope that this gives a female audience more to bite into than other films” says Murphy in the extended interview from the Extra Features reel, "it was very important for me that this strong woman didn't just give it up at the end."
Writers Nick Murphy and Stephen Volk, have created characters with warmth, depth, and humanity; characters an audience can invest in, and root for. Imelda Staunton is magnificent, as school matron Maud Hill. Her performance is wonderfully calculated and nuanced; Maud blossoms with kindness, but her soul has wilted from grieving. She is perfectly broken, and magnificently complex.
Staunton’s would be the “stand-out” performance if she hadn’t played it so well. Maud’s grief is muted by her stoicism and she passes (almost) unnoticed; she is a living ghost who has forgotten how to exist outside of the school she is 'haunting'. But Maud is not supposed to stand-out, and Staunton understood this perfectly.
It’s refreshing to stumble upon a director who is willing to take the Horror genre seriously, and see an opportunity to explore more delicate human experiences—loneliness, guilt, and grief. Some might be concerned that the genre is too blunt to navigate the mine-fields of World War I with appropriate vision, but Murphy proves that horror films can be thoughtful, and sensitive, and makes a strong case for them to be upgraded from the cheap seats of the Exploitation Cinema.
The Awakening is an unusual inductee of the horror genre; it is delicate, sensitive and has depth of character. It’s more than an indulgent exercise in genre; it’s an essay on the origins of haunting, and an “interpretation of ghosts”. It’s challenging, intelligent and fascinating enough to warrant a second, or third viewing.
There’s a little something for everyone in this film; the script is strong enough to keep older audiences hooked, and the moody lighting, strong direction, and forceful performances offer something for discerning eyes. The extras features are candid and insightful, and add value to the package. In short, The Awakening is worth forking out for.
The BBC works hard to maintain its reputation for high-quality productions, and commitment to writing talent. I’m happy to report that this reputation remains intact; The Awakening is a successful venture into the horror genre, and while it is far removed from the torture-porn (thankfully) and hysteria that characterises the modern genre, it has enough jumps, chills, and squeals to make it well worth a look.