Friday, October 21, 2011

Wake Me Up Before You Ghost-Ghost

A review of The Awakening for Don't Panic, although I expect this little baby's going straight in the shredder once they see the title. No I'm not going to apologise. Wham (and puns) 4eva!

Refusing to acknowledge the British film industry is short on cash is as pointless as denying newly bronzed and pec-tastic Jodie Marsh’s gradual metamorphosis into Peter Andre circa 1995 - but that’s no excuse for borrowing outtakes.

Approximately fourteen minutes into The Awakening, as the train from Platform 9 3/4 huffs and puffs across an aqueduct into the impossibly green and luscious British countryside, we’re settling in for another jolly term at Hogwarts when - hang on a minute! What’s Dolores “not another pastel twinset” Umbridge doing here? Didn’t she die at the end of the Order of the Phoenix? Oh I see. Despite the misleading presence of Potter stalwart Imelda Staunton, a boarding school larger than most of the Home Counties, and a carrot-haired boy with no friends and a vacuous expression, it turns out we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto, but rather some way into the debut feature by British TV director Nick Murphy, and a valiant attempt at putting a spin on the ol’ **SPOILER ALERT** I-See-Dead-People sub-genre. Although if that ginger kid isn’t a Weasley I’ll eat my Sorting hat.

Set shortly after the end of the First World War, The Awakening continues the current trend for filmmakers to make absolutely sure no holidaymakers come within a ten-mile radius of the British Isles by conjuring up an overcast, moody England with a similarly austere visual palette to that of Cary Fukanaga’s Jane Eyre or Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur. A two-pronged attack by the war and influenza has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of British citizens, and the film opens with the not-implausible assertion that ‘this is a time for ghosts’; a quote lifted from the pages of a fictional book by ghost hunter Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall, master of the raised eyebrow, as commanding a presence as expected).

It’s a premise which promises a world seething with unfulfilled desires and lives half-lived, ably illustrated by each of the central characters. Here’s the skinny. Self-flagellating headmaster Mallory (Dominic West) runs haunted Rookwood School alongside bereaved housekeeper Maud (Imelda Staunton) and hires ultra-modern lady scientist Florence to debunk stories of a ghost before the parents make a break for the nearest catchment areas, or alternatively knuckle down in the back yard and teach them to count with rocks, Big Society style. Now that’s a scary thought.

Florence makes a living debunking ghosts in a masochistic attempt to alleviate the guilt she feels over breaking up with her soldier fiancée shortly before his death. She refuses to allow herself or others to believe in the return of the dead, and hope is a key theme of the film, perhaps explored most powerfully in an early scene where the mother of a dead girl, tricked into attending a séance, slaps Florence rather than thanking her for setting the record straight. This opening curveball bodes well for the progression of the narrative, yet the forthcoming drama is unpredictable in a manner which owes less to clever story engineering than a screenplay co-written by Murphy and horror writer Stephen Volk which turns out to be even more complicated than one of Jamie Oliver's 30 Minute Meals.

You may THINK you’re getting a new and tasty spin on a British classic, but four hours later it's still in the oven, half your guests have given up and gone home and the other half are eyeing up the hamster and wondering what it'll taste like on the barbecue. Fuck you Jamie. I haven’t forgotten that bastard chocolate pudding I was forced to serve at 1.30am. And while I'm not saying I spent any (much) of the film wondering which character would be tastiest slapped between two floury buns and smothered in Reggae Reggae sauce, if we're going to go there then the correct answer is clearly Dominic West, whose meaty naked thighs get some serious close-ups in a stomach-churning subplot concerning guilt-stricken Mallory’s need to punish himself for having survived.

Ahem. Where was I? Ah yes. Thighs. I mean the plot. Murphy and Volk’s attempt to create something more than simply a run-of-the-mill ghost story is to be applauded, and on one level they achieve this, using secondary characters and subplots to delve into an England imploding with grief and loss. It’s a pity these larger themes never feel fully integrated into the central premise. Florence’s guilt about her dead fiancée colours her professional decision-making but has little impact on her relationship with Mallory, whilst the ghost turns out to be neither flu victim nor soldier, but Maud’s son Tom: a childhood friend murdered by Florence’s deranged father. The curious happenings at Rookwood stem from a repressed memory of this tragic childhood trauma, which Maud has lured Florence back to the school to confront - and given that Volk gives us little reason to disbelieve Florence’s cover story about her parents dying from a lion attack, The Awakening’s twist ending comes swinging out of leftfield with less warning than one of Louis Walsh’s turd-for-brains decisions on the X Factor. Will somebody PLEASE take one for the team and deport him back to Dublin. And make Gary Barlow Prime Minister while you’re at it. V-neck t-shirts for all!

The real threat in Murphy’s story comes not from the dead but from the living. Florence narrowly avoids being brutally murdered at the hands of fairly irrelevant rapist Judd (now there’s a phrase you don’t hear every day) but isn’t quite so lucky when Maud spikes her tea with poison in a last-ditch attempt to reunite lonely Tom with his childhood friend. Indeed, given the weight of audience expectation Tom carries on his shoulders as The Awakening’s sole supernatural presence, one might be forgiven for wanting more from him than excellent manners, a facial disfigurement which comes and goes at will and a knack for ping pong.

In retrospect, and somewhat curiously given Volk’s credits (Afterlife, Ghostwatch) perhaps what The Awakening lacks most is those supernatural elements of fright and suspense so crucial to a successful ghost story. Murphy is undeniably adept at building tension. The camera doesn’t linger on glimpses of children in dark corners, trusting us to spot the ghosts for ourselves, and there’s a nail-biting sequence in which Florence finds herself drawn repeatedly to a dollhouse in an abandoned attic room, opening it to find an exact replica of Rookwood and a tiny mannequin of herself peering at that same match-box sized dollhouse. There’s also a lingering close-up of Florence masturbating in the bath (MASTURBATION! A TROUSER SUIT!! My GOD this woman is MODERN!) underpinned by an unpleasant sense that her seemingly disembodied hands will, in fact, turn out to belong to someone else. Yet as the story unfolds we realise there’s little malevolence at play, and consequently The Awakening – an ambitious and classy debut which overall Murphy can be proud of - lacks the sheer visceral flourish and nastiness of, say, Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage, which makes a not-dissimilar attempt to reinvent the ghost story without forgetting that the audience needs scares.

Oh and one last thing. It occurs to me that none of the pictures in this article have anything to do with The Awakening whatsoever. So, like a builder with three inches of hairy bum-crack on display moving your spider plant to cover up the fact he’s done no work on that corner of the bathroom whatsoever, I leave you with... Rebecca Hall, looking reasonably foxy. Happy?

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