There are ghost stories and there are ghost stories. The traditional ghost stories are those where something from the spirit world attacks the innocent victims for no other apparent reasons than it can. We have scores and scores of those horror movies, where horror is to frighten us, without the requirement of any logic.
Somewhere along the line, the trend changed, as filmmakers attempted to understand the ghost world. In those films, ghosts are not a prop for horror, but a site of tragedy. They are the lost souls who must find their way out with the help of the living. I’m not sure when the trend started. But, Guillermo Del Torro’s ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ can be an excellent start. There are number of Spanish films which hover on the same periphery, including the Nicole Kidman vehicle ‘The Others’, a magnificently mounted film, and ‘The Orphanage.’ Now, the idea seems to have crossed over, what with Ryan Murphy’s enormously popular American sitcom, ‘American Horror Story’, which tells the story from the ghosts’ point of view.
In between stands this low-key British horror film, ‘The Awakening’ (2011), directed by Nick Murphy, which may not be masterpiece or anything, but is enormously helped by actor Rebecca Hall’s superb central performance and is more than adequately helped by Dominic West and Immelda Staunton, and a stately British manor house which looks haunting enough and steely blue-grey photography that enhances the mood of the proceedings. What I liked most however what the screenplay, which stays true to the milieu. The time is 1920, and the film refers to the ravages of the war in more ways than one. It is this reference to specific time and place that gives this maudlin ghost story its gravitas.
Florence is a tragic case. Her lover died in the war and now, she’s a famous author and ghost buster, only that she does not believe in ghost. It’s the work of charlatans to exploit people grieved by death. Then arrives Robert Mallory, a school teacher from a residential school in the interiors. A boy has died recently and there has been sighting of ghosts. Years ago there was a murder in the building where the school stands, it was a private house then and a boy died.
Florence does not believe in ghosts and after much cajoling, she accepts the job, travels to the school and soon, figures out the reason for the student’s death. He was scared and he was asthmatic. Case closed.
But things are not as it seems. Florence is haunted by something she has no clear idea about. But, she is determined to find the truth. Only things is she cannot even determine the price she’ll have to pay for the true, for the truth involves her own childhood, something that she managed to shut out from her mind all these years.
The payoff may not be as dramatic as you’d expect but, it tells the story convincingly, almost, thanks, in not small parts, to Hall’s masterful performance. She makes you believe in her trauma.