A ghost story relies on the memory of trauma, and The Awakening has plenty, as it’s set in a slate-toned 1921, with the catastrophe of the Great War and England’s grieving still fresh. Authoress Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is the rationalist scourge of the hordes of postwar spiritualist opportunists, introduced debunking a séance in a scene closely recalling the thematically similar supernatural-skepticism drama Red Lights. Florence’s reputation as, per one character, “one of the cleverest people in England,” brings schoolmaster Mallory (Dominic West) to call on her in London, inviting her to his boarding school in the north to explain the purported presence of a murdered child’s ghost, which has now killed one of the school’s own. Through the first hour of The Awakening, director Nick Murphy sustains a sense of gathering unease through psychologically terrorizing effects like a model of the school ominously populated with figurines signifying the dramatis personae. Murphy’s steady turning of the screw falters during a last act with more sprung surprises than Cymbeline, involving wicked groundskeepers, poisonings, and an avalanche disgorged suppressed memories. Hall’s committed performance validates even the maddest developments, and she slips into the period well, recalling Virginia Woolf in her lank, swan-necked bearing and tremulous suffering. The Awakening’s true literary precedent, however, is apparent in the dime-store Freud title of Florence’s announced next book: The Interpretation of Ghosts. Nick Pinkerton
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