If you approach ‘The Awakening’ as I did, a fan of Dominic West from ‘The Wire’ (gritty West) and ‘The Hour’ (dashing West) — well, we’ll always have ‘The Wire’ and ‘The Hour.’ He is is so underused that he barely gets to raise an eyebrow in ‘The Awakening,’ a modest, watchable but pedestrian ghost story set just after World War I.
Rebecca Hall is the film’s true center as Florence Cathcart, who debunks ghost sightings and other manifestations of the afterlife that so many people of that era, amid so much loss, were deperately clinging to. The idea of mourning that earlier Lost Generation, which included a soldier Florence loved, is a promising idea, but it is buried under the not-so-spooky trappings of this low-rent version of ‘The Innocents,’ ‘The Others,’ and many lesser films.
West plays Robert Mallory, a history teacher at a boys’ boarding school, who believes something is shaking the place up, maybe even the ghost of a child murdered there before it was a school. He recruits Florence to come investigate — the building is one of those great old piles — and voila: a Ghostbuster at Downton Abbey.
One of the film’s best sequences is its first: Florence goes undercover and exposes the frauds at a London seance. Hall carries the role off with perfect sincerity, but it’s no use. Once Robert drags Florence out to the school in the country, the film becomes rich with cliches. Imelda Staunton plays a housekeeper named Maud, such a stock ghost-story figure that at first sight you ask if she’s a deliberately trite red herring. There’s a strangely belligerent groundskeeper. And of course in no time the students head off for a break leaving behind Robert, Florence, Maude, and one lonely boy whose family is in India.
Despite its pretty period touches and Florence’s ghost-busting paraphernalia – from cameras to trip-wires – the spookiness is never very chilling and certainly not surprising. Director Nick Murphy (whose previous work was in British television, including the series ‘Primeval’) wrote the screenplay with Stephen Volk, and you have to wonder if they saw too many old ghost movies or too few. Most of all, you have to wonder why West and Hall didn’t have anything better to do.