I adore a good ghost story. The first review this site posted was of one of my favorite books, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. There are few story types that retain for us the ability for the common person to confront the otherworldly in a way that mostly leaves behind the flashy Hollywood ideas of the “supernatural.” A good ghost story gets the common person thinking about causes on the philosophical level, and where the line between what we call our nature and that which is beyond our nature meet. They wrap up into themselves the homely and the numinous in a very pleasing and intriguing way. This is why a good ghost story relies on the kind of fear that raises the hair on one’s arms instead of hurling one from his seat.
The Awakening is a 2011/2012 (depending, I suppose, on which country you are in) BBC film about Cambridge educated skeptic and debunker of all things ghostly Florence Cathcart (played wonderfully by Rebecca Hall). The arc of the story is easy to surmise just from this brief introduction. She will by the end of the film lose her skepticism, which we find out is the result of a hunt for any evidence of life after death. She has lost someone close, and her desire to contact him has led her to believe that because all the seances she has attended are hoaxes, so also must the afterlife be. Movies being what they are, and the human story being what it is, we can guess pretty well how her personal story will end with regard to this matter in a movie called The Awakening.
Much of the movie’s charm is the setting and the trappings of a 1920’s English boarding school. Present is the history professor who carries survivor guilt from the Great War, and the malingerer who no longer bothers with his feigned handicaps. There are the large nearly empty rooms, the Eton collars and the corporal punishment. The charm is somewhat diminished when modern techniques are applied to the supernatural elements of the film. They simply do not fit.
Theologically the movie founders a bit. Early on, Robert Mallory (a gratifyingly stoic Dominic West) comes to enlist Florence’s aid with a potential haunting. He informs her that the boys believe that there is a ghost and is told in return that the boys in the school believe in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Clause, and some may even believe in God. We are told that the school Matron (Imelda Staunton) keeps Florence’s book Seeing Through Ghosts on her shelf next to the Bible. There is also a reference to a biblical scene in a painting in the school. However, the connection between the belief in the afterlife and the existence of God is never explicitly made. Nor even once is Florence’s false deduction “I have searched for proof of the afterlife, I have debunked those who say they have it, and have nowhere found any other evidence of it, therefore it does not exist” critiqued. The closest the movie comes to this is when Robert refers to Florence’s writing, saying “I didn’t much like your book, I found it too certain.”
Nor, when the eventual awakening occurs, is there ever any reflection on the questions of greater significance. It is enough to know that ghosts exist, not to know whether or not their existence is good or bad. As well, questions of ultimate happiness or sorrow are at least implicitly pinned on achieving certain elements of happiness in this life. No more can be said about this without spoiling the end of the movie. But it can be said that the movie’s thesis is plainly stated by Robert Mallory, “It’s never darker than when we close our eyes and yet we keep them shut.” When the main character’s eyes are soon afterward opened to the otherworldly, her immediate response is to sleep with Mr. Mallory. If one were moralizing about the film, which I am not going to do, something might be said here about how many meanings the title actually has.
|Rent on Amazon|
|The Awakening (2012)|
However, I don’t want to be too hard on The Awakening. It, like good ghost stories should, brings the domestic and the mysterium horrendum if not the mysterium tremendum into close proximity under the same roof. It does this with some clever techniques such as its use of the dollhouse which I found to be particularly effective. While it stumbles a bit in execution when it bows to modern visual conventions, and is perhaps a bit slower than many modern movie-goers would have the patience for, it still stands as a delightful example of that particular brand of British Ghost story that many of have loved since our first encounter with Dickens.