THE AWAKENING (2011) starts off really strong but then spun off into left field.
Living in England in 1921, Florence (the stunning Rebecca Hall) is a professional debunker of charlatans and supernatural phenomena, a profession she joined after her lover died in WWI. Then Robert (Dominic West, who is always great), a teacher at a remote boarding school, shows up and says his school is haunted. He wants her to come and debunk the haunting to assure the students’ parents that the school is not dangerous.
She reluctantly agrees and begins to believe the haunting is actually a series of pranks. But there is a very real ghost at the school, and it wants her.
That’s right about where the story went off the rails for me, becoming a very personal story about her and the school’s ghosts and their shared destiny.
The first half sets up a beautiful film. A scientist dedicated to debunking ghosts come up against a real ghost, which shakes her to the core. An emotional recluse who lost her lover in the Great War finds herself attracted to a teacher who also survived the war but remains wounded inside and haunted by the ghosts of fallen comrades. A ghost child roams the grounds of the school, playful and malicious. The sadness of the Great War hangs in the background as part of the school’s heavy atmosphere.
The second half produces a series of shocking revelations with a somewhat (intentionally) ambiguous conclusion, and while well executed, left me behind as a viewer. The revelations are strange, highly improbable and for me, ultimately unsatisfying. In a way, the film feels like two different movies joined together. Personally, I would have loved to see the original premise carried through to the end, as I found the first half enthralling.
I wouldn’t call THE AWAKENING a bad movie. I enjoyed it for what it was. But what it was could have been amazing.