'The Awakening' truly haunts

Liz Braun, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:49 PM ET

What better place for a ghost story than England after the First World War?

The whole country is awash in mourning and haunted by recent history, just the sort of atmosphere that breeds dread and uncertainty. As a result, the era sees a new interest in seances and psychic phenomena.

Wading into the midst of all that hocus-pocus is Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), a hoax exposer determined to stem the tide of all this ghostly carry-on. Miss Cathcart has published a book on the subject and regularly busts up fake seances, so her services are in demand.

So begins The Awakening, a ghost story that moves slowly from the light into the realm of the ghastly through the careful construction of doubt and fear. Miss Cathcart is visited by Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a teacher at a remote boarding school where, he reports, a boy has actually died of fear. The children see ghosts. Can she help them?

Miss Cathcart is keen to take the assignment and travels north, where she finds an ally in the school matron (Imelda Staunton). But before long, the routine job of debunking ghost sightings at the school turns into something else. Our plucky little ghost-buster finds herself beginning to doubt her own doubts about the spirits.

She travels with instruments to measure paranormal activity. She encounters a creepy doll's house that offers hints about what has happened at the school. Every near-sighting or strange vision or weird event is amplified by the period detail and beautiful surroundings.

The Awakening is as much a mystery as it is a ghost story, eventually winding itself into a satisfying, if vaguely ambiguous ending. This is a truly haunting story, beautiful to look at and involving all the atmosphere you can eat. Writer/director Nick Murphy, known for his work in television series and documentaries, makes an auspicious feature debut here.


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