Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Non-Zombie Walking Dead: Awakened but Not Exactly Alive

When I was about 13 or so, my recently widowed grandmother told me that every night for a week she would hear the chains rattle on the front door of her Bronx apartment and footsteps in the hallway. Then, Grandpa Charlie was standing at the foot of the bed. He wanted her to find a certain key in the desk drawer of his office in Manhattan’s garment district! In relating this story, Grandma Bess laughed and sighed: “There’s a Yiddish saying the old people in Russia used to have: ‘Der toten kommen.’ The dead walk. I never believed it but I guess they were right.”

Even though my adolescent imagination had conjured up images of some vast hidden wealth, apparently there was no key to be found, no wealth to be had. Just Charlie, worrying about business affairs even after his passage into the Great Beyond. If der toten kommen, maybe it’s not necessarily for anything important. In The Awakening, a gorgeous-looking new British film, it’s possible that the dead walk, talk, threaten and perhaps even kill. But Florence Cathcart, the lead female character played by luminous Rebecca Hall (The Prestige, 2006), doesn’t think so. In London of 1921, she’s a fierce professional debunker who helps the police expose con artists. Early on, Florence goes underground to disrupt a phony seance – a terrifically staged scene in which she proclaims, “You’re charlatans!” – and reveals a kind of unspoken protofeminist sensibility.

This was the era of women’s suffrage, of course. But the thriller also chronicles the cloud of grief and survivor’s guilt that pervaded England after World War I. Florence’s spurned fiance has been killed in the conflict, perhaps contributing to the way she’s now obsessed by her cause. With so many lives lost on the battlefield, the entire country is haunted – primarily by grim memories, but maybe every now and then by actual wraiths. As a noted skeptic and author of books on the subject, she receives requests to scrutinize supposed paranormal goings-on. That’s why Robert Mallory (Dominic West) shows up at her door one day. He teaches history at a boarding school in Cumbria, a rural county up north near the border of Scotland that has been beautifully depicted in The Awakening by Spanish cinematographer Eduard Grau (A Single Man, 2009).

Rebecca Hall
Although not overtly given to magical thinking, the mysteriously brooding Mallory can’t figure out why a student recently perished from fright at seeing a gruesome apparition and why a phantom keeps appearing in class photos. She’d prefer not to think that a child murdered at the site long ago could be the culprit. “I believe in evidence,” Florence points out, before heading to Cumbria armed with a good deal of scientific paraphernalia. At the eerie school, which could double for Hogwarts, she meets a governess with secrets named Maud (Imelda Staunton); the rather fragile young Tom (Isaac Hempstead Wright); a furtive headmaster (John Shrapnel); a nervous groundskeeper (Joseph Mawle); and a brutish teacher (Shaun Dooley) who is suffering from a consumptive cough. Several of them serve as red herrings, but is the spooky situation itself fishy?

Things go bump, shadowy figures zip by at the edge of the frame and disembodied voices echo through the distinctly Dickensian place, but Florence persists in her dispassionate investigation until various passions intervene. The devices she’s brought cannot really measure the metaphysical realm and she’s flummoxed by the yearning of her own heart, which begins to beat faster whenever handsome Mallory is in the vicinity. He’s a military veteran, scarred within and without. For her, the quest to understand the spectral fright soon gets very personal. At first, neither realizes that the other is also suffering from an early 20th-century version of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Both of them have been living in denial about the darkness in their respective pasts, so naturally -- or supernaturally -- by coming together they create heat and light. The fine actors do justice to this mutual attraction.

Dominic West & Rebecca Hall
But veteran TV director Nick Murphy’s theatrical feature debut, co-written with horror genre scribe Stephen Volk (William Friedkin’s The Guardian, 1990), fails to understand that most mystical matters are best left inexplicable. They stuff much too much exposition into the last third of the movie, disrupting the wonderful atmospherics that have graced the screen until then. The zippy saga suddenly requires a slowing down of the thought process just to keep track of who did what to whom and when. One too many developments are attributed to fate. Plus, there’s a great big hole in the narrative – a flaw in the timing of events – that trips up its interior logic.

Despite disappointment in how The Awakening ties up loose ends, I will continue to root for old-fashioned ghost stories as a noble genre. As my Grandma Bess must have discovered, der toten kommen and keep kommen.

– Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.