Starring Rebecca Hall, Dominic West. Written by Stephen Volk, Nick Murphy. Directed by Nick Murphy. PG. 106 min. Opens Aug. 17.
“It is a time for ghosts,” reads the opening-credit prologue of The Awakening, a supernatural thriller set in the years after World War I. The idea of a movie about a Britain haunted by the spectre of an entire gunned-down generation is quite promising, but writer-director Nick Murphy uses it as window dressing—some heavily melancholic atmosphere to disguise how airless his script (co-written by Stephen Volk) really is.
The always-fine Rebecca Hall stars as Florence Cathcart, a professional spirit-world debunker who’s introduced while in the midst of breaking up a phony séance. A subtle proto-feminist with a seen-it-all smirk, she’s a bracing and likeable character, which is why it’s so disappointing that The Awakening is dedicated to putting her skepticism through the wringer. Despite Hall’s best efforts, Florence is reduced to an early-20th-century version of Dana Scully, spooked by the appearance of real ghosts that scare away the fake ones.
When Florence shows up at a ghoulish boarding school allegedly haunted by a faceless little boy, it’s only a matter of time before she concedes that science can’t explain everything and ends up spooked by things going bump in the night. The people around her are one-dimensional—Dominic West as a psychically scarred war veteran, Imelda Staunton as a stubborn matron with a secret—but the school itself is a wonderful character, a massive, cavernous structure that’s all dizzying staircases and dark corners. With its beautifully scouted locations and elegant greyscale cinematography, The Awakening is an expensive-looking production, but most of its scare tactics are cheap.