There are many theories on whether or not ghosts actually exist and, if they do, what causes these lost souls to stick around rather than moving on. The idea of proving or debunking their existence has become the subject of numerous reality shows such as Ghost Hunters, where experimental scientific methods are used to investigate paranormal activities. The British film The Awakening (not based on the feminist novel by Kate Chopin) takes ghost hunting back almost an entire century as strange occurrences at a preparatory school for orphans culminate in the death of one of its students.
Florence (Rebecca Hall) has made a career out of using scientific methods to track ghosts. Only her methods have been effective in not only disproving hauntings, but also uncovering fraudulent mediums using hoaxes to prey on those looking to reconnect with loved ones who have passed on. Her dedication to the subject has made her a famous (or infamous, depending on who you talk to) author bent on proving that there’s no such thing as ghosts. But when Robert (The Wire‘s Dominic West), a teacher from the boarding school, asks Florence for her assistance with the reported ghost sightings that resulted in the death of one student, she agrees to help. After her initial hesitation, Florence is inexplicably drawn to the school, and especially one young boy named Tom (Game of Thrones‘ Isaac Hempstead-Wright).
After her first night at the school, Florence is able to unveil a prank by some of the students, and it seems that the mystery has been solved. But after she also exposes one teacher’s abusive disciplinary methods, she starts to experience unexplainable occurrences for herself. As it turns out she, herself, is haunted by the loss of her lover in World War I. But that doesn’t fully explain the odd sightings and flashbacks that become more and more frequent the longer she stays at the school. When she insists on continuing her investigation even after Robert and Maud (Imelda Staunton), the housekeeper, are convinced that the prank explains everything, Florence’s own sanity begins to be questioned. And she gradually begins to realize that it’s not just the guilt and grief of having lost her lover that is haunting her, but something from much earlier in her life that has been repressed for many years.
By the time she figures out the source of these ghosts, chaos has broken out for those remaining at the school while the students are out on holiday. And in the tradition of The Sixth Sense and The Others, there is a big twist (or should I say, “an awakening”?) as the film reaches its climax. But The Awakening‘s big surprise is not the same surprise found in those movies. Instead, this film takes things one step further, surprising the viewer yet again just when he thinks he has it all figured out. And after all the suspense leading up to the big revelations, it’s kind of like the uneasy relief you might feel if you pulled the sheet way to find that there was never anyone underneath after all.
The Awakening. Directed by Nick Murphy. Starring Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton. Rated R. www.cohenmedia.net.