The film's ominous opening credits inform us that between 1901 and 1921 over a million people died in the United Kingdom from the twin effects of the Spanish flu and the Great War. Then it concludes that it's a time for ghosts. The quotation is attributed to Florence Cathcart.
Setting the mood immediately, we are introduced to Cathcart herself (Rebecca Hall). A plucky, pants-wearing woman of science in 1920s England, Florence is an Oxbridge-educated 'ghost hunter', though she'd be the first to tell you that "you can't hunt what does not exist". Her job as the film opens basically consists of being the party pooper at a seances where she manages to destroy the guests' illusions that their loved ones are returning in some form or other. Confident and charismatic, this glammed-up version of a Scooby Doo character is one day called up Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a History master at a boys' boarding school called Rookwood. As Mallory claims, the boys at Rookwood are being 'frightened to death' by a spectral child that has haunted the school grounds for years, its latest victim being popular bullybait 'Weezy Walter' Porter (so named because he has a bedwetting history.) Is this the result of cruel school pranks gone wrong, or something more sinister altogether?
Turns out even without ghosts, the people populating Rookwood are a pretty haunted bunch. In addition to the abused children, the staff are not without scars themselves. Mallory is still suffering from a limp from a wartime wound and his cruel fellow teacher McNair (Shaun Dooley) seems to believe in corporal punishment of his charges to make them 'tougher than (the Great War generation) are'. The school's governess Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton) seems perpetually sad and seems to know more than she is letting on about the school itself. Lastly, a creepy groundskeeper stalks the area, warning Cathcart that it's 'the living' she has to be aware of. Advice that might serve her well to take to heart.
This is Hall's first leading role incredibly enough, and she is ideally cast with her unconventional beauty, offset by wide manic eyes and long limbs giving the image of one not entirely comfortable in one's skin. Though as an actress she is more than able to project the charisma and confidence the character demands. Hearing her tartly comment on a painting of Judith slaying Holofernes (an Apocryphal tale in the Bible in which a woman seduces and then beheads the enemy's highest general) is just great. The hunky West (it's easy to see why Florence is more than willing to spy on him in the bath) projects a grave, wounded masculinity, and the always-skillful Staunton projecting warmth and sympathy, also give two commendable performances.
TV veteran Nick Murphy proves more than competent in handling the demands of this very English ghost story. Along with cinematographer Eduardo Grau, the very muted, filtered palette of the film superbly fits the ashen, haunted world that the film evokes, in which the living are haunted by the dead in more ways than one. The meticulous care by which Murphy slowly allows the film's creepier elements to emerge from almost nowhere is a delight to behold. Rather than using a series of repetitive jump-scares and hackneyed visual and audio cues like the similar The Woman in Black, Murphy builds the creepiness of the premise up gradually and slowly allows the viewer to immerse themselves in the same level of confusion that overcomes Cathcart as her investigation swallows up her time, effort and sanity.
Despite all these strengths, The Awakening almost unravels in its final act due to a shoehorned and convoluted resolution that seems frankly preposterous given the various goings-on that were happening before and nearly destroys the care and attention that director Nick Murphy and his co-writer Stephen Volk have built their world, even as it tries to make some intellectual and philosophical points about the need for society to believe in ghosts, which it seems to fall flat on. While tense and exciting, Volk and Murphy's script is nowhere as intelligent as it likes to fancy itself as. Still, The Awakening is a horror film made with sophistication and competence and driven by strong performances all around, and definitely a better than average example of the genre.