WARNING: contains spoilers
The Awakening, written by Stephen Volk and Nick Murphy, who also directs, is an English ghost story set in the aftermath of the First World War. Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), a strong-willed and independent modern woman, has taken it upon herself to be the scourge of occult charlatanry and fake spiritualism, exposing the methods of mystification, the table-tapping trickery through which people are fooled into believing that they are once more connected with people who have passed from their lives. She has become something of a minor celebrity, having written a book detailing her investigations which was a great popular success. Having thus gained a widespread reputation as a ghost hunter and demystifying detective, she is hired by a teacher, Robert Mallory (Dominic West), to employ her methods at Rookford, an isolated boys’ boarding school in the north in which he works. The spectral apparition of a boy has been appearing in a succession of school photographs and haunts the night corridors, its presence seemingly leading to the death of one pupil. Florence expects to discover some elaborate schoolboy prank, or sceptic-baiting hoax, and Mallory, in calling upon her services, is also apparently seeking a rational explanation. There are complex currents of repressed emotion running through the school, and she soon finds herself being pulled into their undertow, and finds it difficult to leave or find easy answers to the mystery. When the school breaks up for the holidays, she is left in the great, empty mansion in which the school is housed, with only Mallory, Judd the groundsman (Joseph Mawle), Maud the nurse and housekeeper (played with typical quiet restraint by Imelda Staunton) and one pupil, Tom, for company. As well as whatever else may be present.
The Awakening is a ghost story of self-conscious classicism, with many of the traditional and familiar elements intact. There is an isolated manor house, cheerlessly grey and labyrinthine, with a full compliment of locked rooms and concealed passages and basements; a still, stagnant pool with an old and disused boathouse offering a shadowy, secluded space at its edge; dark woods and twisted rhododhendron thickets bordering the grounds, forbidding places even before night begins to fall; and a journey across bleak and sparsely populated moorland to arrive at the school. It is just the kind of setting in which Florence would expect a supernatural drama to be played out. When we first meet her, she is anonymously taking part in a séance, which unfolds with all the stagy spookiness of old-fashioned cinematic illusion. There is carefully masked illumination to highlight certain actions and direct attention away from others, sepulchral set dressing to evoke a supernatural mood, simple special effects and atmospheric sound, mechanical stage props, and transformative make-up and key lighting to create a suitably cadaverous pallor on the faces of the actors. Florence contemptuously tears open the curtains to throw daylight across the shadowy room, dispelling the otherworldly aura and laying the mechanics of the performance bare. It is as if someone were to slash the cinema screen and stand in front of the projector making mocking hand shadows.
When Florence is invited to Rookford, she anticipates coming across a similarly elaborate theatrical set up, played out on a larger stage. Part of the sense of narrative anticipation lies in the question of how her disbelief will be challenged, and whether it will be worn down. Volk’s script and Murphy’s direction also makes play with the classic ghost story elements, with allusions to various scenes from the relatively few notable cinematic examples of the form. The ball bouncing down the stairs has echoes of similar children’s balls thrown by an invisible hand in Mario Bava’s Kill Baby Kill, Peter Medak’s The Changeling and Nigel Kneale’s TV adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. Pale faces pressed to the windowpane also make an appearance in Charles Gordon Clark’s adaptation of MR James’ Lost Hearts in the Ghost Stories for Christmas sequence, in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, and again in Kill Baby Kill. A figure suddenly turning to reveal hideously deformed features is something of a horror film staple, and is used (on a regular basis) in John Irvin’s Ghost Story and in The Others. Two minor characters, a couple with the surname of Vandermeer, would also appear to tip the hat to contemporary curators of the weird in literature and other forms, Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. The all-pervasive sense of knowingness, whilst never spilling over into empty parody or pastiche, is given a rationale in the final revelation that the genuine hauntings also have their theatrical aspect. Its part of the humanisation of the spirit world that its inhabitants are allowed to have a playful side, as much as the children who participate in the original ‘fake’ haunting. The smeared, open-mawed and gaping socketed visage which has caused so much terror is in fact the ghostly boy pulling faces. He is playing a role as much as anyone else.
Stephen Volk’s script is in some respects a period version of his TV series Afterlife with the roles reversed. In Afterlife, Alison is a troubled medium who receives messages from the dead and is sometimes able to see them. She becomes an object of study for Robert, a lecturer in psychology, whose treatment of her as an academic case implies a distanced standpoint of objective non-belief, which begins to shade into active hostility as he becomes more personally involved. He is interested in mediumship as a social and psychological phenomenon rather than in any possibility of a spiritual dimension. Florence is like Robert but is more actively hostile to spiritualism and the paranormal, wanting to expose rather than merely document the practices of mediums, and dispel the superstitious belief in hauntings to which they claim to be sensitive. Believing that they are inherently fraudulent and self-serving, she sees them as purveyors of emotionally manipulative exploitation (the view of many censorious souls towards cinema over the years). Not all of those who are saved from such exploitation are necessarily grateful for her interventions. The woman who was the client at the séance subsequently strikes her. The solace offered by the medium, the hope of renewed contact with someone whom she loved, has been abruptly torn away, leaving her with emptiness once more. The film has a prefaratory text explaining the rise in interest and participation in spiritualism in the wake of the huge loss of life in the war, and through the flu pandemic which coincided with its ending. People cling to necessary illusions in order to make life bearable. ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’ as TS Eliot put it in The Four Quartets.
The Awakening also resembles Afterlife in its humanisation of the supernatural, of the ghosts which it manifests. Afterlife, in the course of its two series, used its supernatural premise to unflinchingly explore some of the most traumatic and emotionally shattering experiences of life, confronting fundamental fears and universal anxieties, with death in its varied guises being the ultimate unspoken reality underpinning them all. Need, desire, jealousy, hatred, longing and loneliness – the whole panoply of human emotion – are common on both sides of the spiritual divide. The hauntings in Afterlife and The Awakening give form to feelings which are too overwhelming to bear ordinary expression. In The Awakening, this is at least partly the national trauma and benumbed daze of the war’s aftershock. There is an element of the ghost story which dovetails, to a greater or lesser extent, with the detective story. The nature of a haunting, its origins in a particular event or feeling which has yet to find resolution, has to be discovered. When this discovery has been acted upon, the haunting can be brought to an end, the case closed. Both Florence and Alison are psychic detectives in their own way, and both are ultimately working towards a resolution of unspoken traumas in their own childhoods. The confrontation of initially terrifying intrusions into the rational world allows them to face their fears and find an empathic connection with the inhabitants of the world beyond. Fear is dispelled through understanding and compassion. Alison lays ghosts to rest, helping them to move beyond the material world in which they have become temporarily trapped. Florence is dedicated to laying more material spirits to rest, figuratively whipping away the white sheet to reveal the prankster beneath. Both ultimately face their own ghosts in the form of monstrous parents – Alison her terrifyingly manipulative mother, the manner of whose death is designed to create an unbreakable bond; and Florence her murderous father. Human psychology as much as supernatural emanation is at the heart of these hauntings.
Caravaggio's Judith Beheading HolofornesThe 1920s setting allows for an examination of the way in which notions of masculinity and femininity, and the roles of men and women, were changing (at some levels of society, anyway). Florence is very much the embodiment of the new woman, self-confident and assertive in pursuing her own ends. She dresses in mannish clothes, is curt and to the point, unconcerned with any need to appear demure and retiring in speech and manner. She smokes cigarettes, not waiting for someone else to light them, and doesn’t even use a holder! She is the primary protagonist of the story in an active way, not in the passive sense of female characters up until this juncture. With her scepticism and sardonic manner, she exhibits traditionally male traits which complement her dress, and go against the idea of women being more ‘sensitive’, ‘open’, and ‘understanding’ (all of which could be qualities ascribed to Alison in Afterlife). She attracts opprobrium from some people she encounters, just as women were viewed with resentment if they tried to maintain their position in the workforce into which they’d been welcomed during the war. The fear of women’s growing independence is dramatically expressed in the huge painting which hangs above the stairs at Rookford: Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofornes, in which the Jewish heroine is in the process of effortfully cutting off the head of the Assyrian leader, whom she has first seduced. A castration image, Freud would no doubt hastily have concluded. It’s a choice of picture that suggests that the single sex school and the household which preceded it is a hotbed of repressed feeling and sexual anxiety. The groundsman at Rookford, Judd, is portrayed as a weaselly man, impotent and cowardly, an anti-Mellors (the groundskeeper in DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover). His only way to display his manhood in the face of Florence’s open disdain is to attempt to rape her. Mallory looks like the standard rugged, heroic figure, handsome and a little distant. But he is also vulnerable, his stutter giving him a hesitancy suggestive of a lack of self-assurance. He becomes the object of her gaze when she finds the peephole bored into the wall of the bathroom, and it is only later on that she willingly offers herself to what she believes to be his regard before the same hole. He prises open his old war wounds until they bleed, a modern day fisher king figure whose unhealing wound is connected with the surrounding malaise.
The war is itself seen as a crisis in Victorian and Edwardian ideals of masculinity. Mallory may take his name from the explorer George Mallory, the mountaineer who died during an ascent of Everest – a heroic man who also shared the open sexuality of the Bloomsbury group, having affairs with both men and women. Then again, it could also refer to Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers books, set in a girls’ boarding school. Judd is a troubling figure. On the one hand, the war is seen as being a prolonged and horrific nightmare, a slaughterground upon which men’s lives were meaninglessly thrown away. It created a new mistrust of the establishment and their motivations and fomented revolution on the continent. On the other hand, Judd, who is cast in an unsympathetic light throughout, is seen as despicable coward (by Florence as much as by anyone else) for having faked injury to escape his fate as expendable cannon fodder. Judd is like Mallory’s shadow self, a manifestation of his fear and loathing, and of his attitude to the war and its aftermath, which remains unspoken. He is representative of the psychological rupture of war, its explosion of meaning and purpose, which are left to lie in rubble and ruin. Judd is always seen outdoors, often in dark, liminal places such as the moorland, the woods or the rhododendron thickets, whereas Mallory is generally to be found within the school building. Mallory’s evident dislike of Judd is first made manifest when the latter is seen up a ladder leaning against the side of the building. It as if he has come to close, pushing up to the boundaries of Mallory’s world. When Judd assaults Florence in the woods, Mallory finds himself mysteriously locked into his room, from which he can only escape to the roof to impotently look out. It’s as if his ignoble, bestial self has been let loose. There’s also a class element to the Mallory/Judd dualism. Judd, like Lawrence’s Mellors, is a working class figure with a pronounced northern accent, and Mallory’s disease with him is partially a reflection of this fact. Mallory’s wartime suffering, horrific through it is, is given a certain noble cast. It’s the suffering immortalised in verse by the likes of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon – the sensitive officer class. Judd was supposed to be one of the foot soldiers who died namelessly in the mud, their bodies never to be recovered. That he evades this anonymous fate results in his being held in contempt, not least by Florence, his survival regarded as a negation of his manhood. The malaise of violent masculine authority is traced back to the paternal atrocity which is the singular event lying at the heart of the Rookford hauntings. The roots of this individual tragedy, which has scarred Florence’s life and which she has suppressed for years, are thus linked with the wider international tragedy of war, which has affected her as it has affected everyone, directly or indirectly. Mallory is trying to suppress his memories of the war; his fellow teacher Malcolm McNair, a man with a bitter aspect, may also be haunted by it, his persistent hacking cough perhaps a constant physical reminder of a trench gas attack.
Haunted houses are often repositories of repressed emotion, physical edifices built from unconscious materials. Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, and Robert Wise’s adaptation of it as The Haunting is a classic example, with the house itself seeming to possess a malign persona which amplifies and absorbs Eleanor’s self-negating, unassertive character until she is a spectral aspect of its unnatural architecture, a lonely ghost walking its corridors. Similarly, in Nigel Kneale’s TV play The Stone Tape, the bricks of an old building act as a kind of receptor for violent emotion, a storage battery for terror and nameless dread. In The Awakening, the house becomes a metaphorical locale for the attempt to strip Florence of her self-assurance and wordliness, to return her to a pre-war notion of female domestication. Like Eleanor, Florence is confronted with her own underlying anxieties and nagging sense of self-doubt. Her boyfriend, whose offer of marriage, made from the front, she rejected, has died in the war. Her choice of independence is thus shaded with guilt, as if she was somehow, through her rejection, responsible for his death.
A large doll’s house takes on a sinister import as the film progresses, with Florence reluctant to approach too closely and see what’s inside. When she does, she has the ontologically vertiginous experience of seeing a direct representation of what she has experienced, including a figure of a woman peering into a small doll’s house. It seems as if some godgame is being played out, the demiurge of the house toying with her sense of self and her perception of the nature of reality. This vertigo, of the world as she knows it receding rapidly before her eyes, is also experienced by the lakeside, where she loses the keepsake given to her by her dead boyfriend. Gazing into the water, she impulsively rolls in, sinking below the surface. Is it a suicide attempt, or has she been drawn in by some mesmeric force? The metaphor of the doll’s house as representing women’s imprisonment within the domestic sphere was most famously explored by Henrik Ibsen in his play The Doll’s House. Here, it serves a similar purpose, Florence being slowly led towards permanent entrapment within Rookford’s walls. It is partly her discover of an old doll containing a musical box which triggers her memories of what had happened to her as a child in this house. The sounding of the box’s chimes had been what alerted her father, in the midst of a murderous psychotic breakdown, to her hiding place. For him, she was his fragile doll, and with the disruption of his perfect domestic set up, occasioned by his own philandering, he intends to smash everything that was a part of it. The housekeeper, Maud, who was also there in the house during Florence’s childhood, desires to have her two spirit children with her forever, and attempts to poison Florence as she has poisoned herself, so that they will be a spectral family, a permanent aspect of the house. She is expressing, in extreme form, the idea that the woman’s place is in the home. A letter in the January 2012 Sight and Sound, responding to the previous month’s review, pointed to the ambiguity of the film’s ending, in which no-one seems to see Florence as she walks through the school, term now reconvened and the corridors full of bustling activity. We never actually see whether Mallory succeeds in rescuing her, and for a moment wander whether she is actually dead. But there seem to be definite indications to the contrary. For a start, she has regained her confident air, striding in a self-assured way with a smile upon her face. The chaplain, who talks about her without acknowledging her presence, has treated her with distanced disapproval from the start. She leaves the building and gets a cigarette from Mallory, which he lights for her, an acknowledgement of a degree of comfortable dependence. Her indulgence in a material pleasure such as smoking gives us firm assurance that she is still in the land of the living. And her independence is confirmed when she calls for a car to take her away from Rookford – awakened and out in the wide world again.