Saturday, March 16, 2013

"She's downstairs." The Mysteries of "The Awakening" (2011)

With my fondness for the late Victorian/Edwardian period of British history, I’m as addicted to Downton Abbey as the next guy. I fairly inhaled the Season Three DVD set in one snort. Weeks later, I am still feeling the after burn. It helps that I brought new lambs to the fold at my day job and get to relive the first two seasons vicariously through their excitement of discovery. But being a melancholic at heart, I can’t help but yearn for a ghost, a séance, or simply a Byronic hero with a juicy facial scar. Lady Edith would make such a Gothic heroine, n’cest pas?

Hot on the heels of the release of Downton Season Three stateside, along comes Nick Murphy’s tidy Gothic ghost thriller, The Awakening. There are no lords and ladies here, no scheming lady’s maid or vicious gay footman – this is the life as it was in post War England: 1921. The War has ruined the lives of the poor and nobleman alike. Class distinctions are quickly becoming a thing of the past. The pain of the Great War looms over The Awakening like a miserable gray pall. No one is unaffected.

The Spiritualist movement may have peaked in the late Victorian era, but anytime there a people are overwhelmed by the casualties of war they are prone to turning to others for spiritual guidance. Some find solace in the church. Others seek more specific contact with the dearly departed.

The Awakening opens with such a scene – querents gathered in a darkened London parlor hoping to speak to their loved ones one last time. Within minutes of the film’s opening, the séance is disrupted by a dramatic exposure of the mechanics used by the medium and her compatriots by one Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), ghost debunker extraordinaire. If you think you’ve seen this scene before in Haunted (1995), you are correct. The Awakening knows its lineage and liberally pays homage to any number of films and fictions from The Sixth Sense and Don’t Look Now to Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Hill House.

I’m always on the lookout for stories that take traditional Gothic templates and infuse new life into them. Florence Cathcart is a true neo-Gothic heroine for the 21st century. Cathcart is arrogant and skeptical, confident in her scientific apparatus and in her analytical conclusions. She is invited to a remote boy’s boarding school in Cumbria where a child has died, apparently the victim of a ghost that haunts the school from the days when it was a residential house. The first half of the plot follows Cathcart as she pulls off feats of deductive reasoning worthy of Sherlock Holmes. The mystery is sewn up, the school closes for half-term…

And the fun begins. The second half of The Awakening spins the film into unpredictable territory. On first viewing I was swept away by the images on the screen, the visual elements that helped both to build and underscore the story. Just before the big reveal at the start of the third act I said to myself, “Whatever the answer is, it’s been right under my nose all along.”

It was – and it wasn’t. The Awakening is quiet, mysterious, cryptic, ambiguous – and when it needs to rely on a story cheat, it does so without apology. Like Don’t Look Now there are strong visual elements that support the denouement of the story, but even as the answers are spelled out during the final act, other questions arise. That, for me, is what makes The Awakening a powerful contribution to the pantheon of great Gothic tales. A stroll around the internet will turn up a number of angry customer reviews, mostly targeted at an open-ended final scene. I sat though the movie twice in one week. The second time I marveled at its complexities and the hints and clues which are buried in the film from the opening scene onward. I’ll admit the dialogue in the final scene is a bit of a head-scratcher, but I think the screenwriters are encouraging the audience to question the nature of subjective reality.

The real puzzle for me, though, was a line of dialogue uttered by Robert Mallory (Dominic West) from behind a closed door in an apparently empty room: “She’s downstairs.”

Watch The Awakening. Then, let’s talk.


  1. Thanks for the recommendation. Great movie! My wife & I went over it for half an hour or more when it was over- "She's downstairs" stumped us, too.

  2. I did find a couple of the story cheats annoying, but overall I enjoyed the movie. Very stylish with a nice creepy Gothic Vibe.

  3. Robert was speaking to his own ghosts, his friends from the war who died and still stay with him.