All Black Captain Sean Fitzpatrick famously could conclude a post-match interview constructed entirely of platitudes, one of his favourites being “Rugby’s an 80 minute game”. It must therefore have been galling for him, in recent retirement, to watch his country succumb to its most ignominious defeat, shipping something like 30 unanswered points to France in the 1999 World Cup from a seemingly unassailable lead at half time, through overlooking that exact truism. New Zealanders still get the cold sweats about it now.
Should Nick Murphy be conducting post screening interviews he would do well to confabulate an equivalent, because to watch The Awakening is to have a similar experience. A confident, well crafted start builds into a genuinely eerie chiller by about half time, whereupon the screenplay so spectacularly self-destructs it is hard to believe that Baader Meinhof hasn’t somehow infiltrated the scriptwriting department.
As ripples of disbelieving laughter began moving through the theatre I was grappling for analogies: this was rather like watching the Rebecca Hall belting along the motorway in a Ferrari, only to have the steering wheel come off in her hands, and then observing the outcome.
Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is a tall, young lady with a degree from Cambridge. She has published a book debunking the supernatural (a topic of understandable public fascination in the aftermath of World War I) and has styled herself as some sort of rationalist myth-buster. She now assists the Peelers in debunking those charlatans who defraud old ladies seeking connection with lost sons through ad hoc seances in the drawing rooms of old London town. In her private moments, Florence seems of a melancholic disposition: we know not why, simply that convention demands she suffer some internal disquiet: the hero has a thousand faces, but all of them are so.
Florence is called upon at her rooms by Mallory (Dominic West), a war veteran nursing the gentlest stammer and also, we suspect, an unarticulated disquiet, and now teaching at a Cumbrian boarding school. Mallory seeks her help following the unexplained death of a boy at his school. He tells Florence he is no particular fan of her book and that her aid has been prayed particularly by school matron Maud (Imelda Staunton), who is.
An improbable scenario, you would think: following an unexplained death the school sends for not the police but to the other end of the country for an anti-occultist, at the motion not of its headmaster but matron.
As convention requires, Florence sends Mallory away with a flea in his ear but before you know it, and without the change in circumstance convention also requires, she is aboard the Hogwarts Express – it seems to be the very same train – on her way to the school, which itself is a sort of neo-classical variation on Hogwarts.
As the scared children prepare for half-term break, the principal actors reveal themselves to be Mallory, Maud and Old Mr Gardener. Actually, there are two Old Mr Gardeners, one of whom really is a gardener, the other a consumptive Latin teacher, and both are prone to loafing around casting furtive glances at all and sundry, generally seeming to be up to no good.
Let me pause to remark that at this point it did occur that, but for the costumes, I may as well have been watching an episode of Scooby Doo.
The tension rises incalculably. The gloomily half-lit school, studded with gory Mannerist paintings (Judith beheading Holofernes, Europa being raped – that kind of thing) echoes emptily and lends a grim pre-Raphaelite air to proceedings. Florence quickly ascertains that the ghostly visions were indeed a hoax (and one played by neither of the Old Mr Gardeners) so, as the boys sit on their trunks and await mater and pater, Florence prepares to be on her way, pausing only for a walk among the grounds during which she encounters Mallory and then Judd (the younger Old Mr Gardener).
Let me pause again to note that key characters remain under-examined, almost as if this were intended to be a four-hour movie, but at the last minute the studio required it cut to two. Mallory has a festering wound – literally: he digs into a shrapnel scar on his leg with a pocket knife every night to keep it from healing; yet we are never told why, other than his guilt from having survived when his comrades perished. Judd, a draft dodger, bears a passionate hatred of both Mallory but also Florence: we are given enough to suppose there might be some grounds for this, but any detailed back story remains on the cutting room floor. Malcolm the Consumptive Latin Teacher (Shaun Dooley) seems misanthropic, ill, and is in any case summarily dismissed before he can interfere much with the plot.
Having solved the hoax, curiously, things continue to go bump in the night. Florence catches glimpses of things out of the corner of her eye she has trouble reconciling with her rationalist certitude. This is all handled deftly indeed, and so the tension ratchets up again: as she pursues these fragmentary visions around the house (now all but empty barring Mallory, Maud and a stay-over pupil named Tom, and with old Judd stumping around moodily in the undergrowth) Florence encounters the same creepy Wendy house in different parts of the building. What she sees in it, which I won’t spoil, is genuinely chilling.
So we’re now well into the second half: victory seems assured; merely a matter of keeping the pressure on and kicking for the corners. What possesses the screenplay writer to run the ball from under its own posts is anyone’s guess, but suddenly the game loses its shape altogether. This seems to be a dreadful pity, but there it is.
Partly it’s the screenplay, which reverses over tracks it has just laid down and introduces a whole new swathe of back story not even hinted at in the preceding hour. This is the set-up for an outrageous twist, which fails precisely because no seeds have been sown for it: like a magician, a film director must misdirect his audience into expecting one scenario over a cleverly laid alternative; revealing a third which was never in the audience’s contemplation in the first place simply doesn’t work as drama.
The characters’ motivations also start unravelling: Mallory and Florence finally ignite their passion in the most improbable circumstances, and then the remaining tenderness are by and large played with a tin ear. Both Old Mr Gardeners are peremptorily dispatched, seemingly having existed only for the meagrest plot nudges, in Malcolm the Consumptive Latin Teacher’s case barely having had a plot function at all.
Partly it’s the script. Both Dominic West and Imelda Staunton are obliged to deliver some Lucasian stinkers in the last twenty minutes, which were met with audible mirth in the cinema.
Partly, I think, it’s the acting. Imelda Staunton, doubtless one of Britain’s leading comedy actors, struggles vainly with her material, and resorts to dreadful gurning at the end: in fairness it is difficult to see what else she could do with such mediocre material, but there must have been something and you sense that Helen Mirren or Maggie Smith would have done it. I am sure it was not part of Nick Murphy’s intent to convert high-minded tension into low farce, but he achieves that end admirably, with added points for incoherence in an ending in which where it isn’t clear who is alive , who is dead, who was alive but is now dead, and possibly who was never alive in the first place.
In any case the whole tremendously promising thing ends as a wreck, and in the last scene those of the actors still standing (alive or undead) wander around outside the school with the dazed and confounded expressions of unexpectedly defeated All Blacks.
Cinema is a 104 minute game, you see.
Director: Nick Murphy
Writers: Stephen Volk, Nick Murphy
Cast: Dominic West, Rebecca Hall, Imelda Staunton
Runtime: 107 mins