Tuesday, August 14, 2012

THE AWAKENING: Nick Murphy's good ghost story stars a tasty Rebecca Hall

Within a few weeks of each other, we've had two movies make their debuts featuring fine leading-lady performances from two of the strongest actresses currently working in film -- with both playing a debunker of the paranormal. Last month Sigourney Weaver shed her grace on the under-rated Red Lights, and now we have Rebecca Hall playing a ghost-buster of a century earlier in Nick Murphy's new old-fashioned scare movie THE AWAKENING.

By "strong actress," TrustMovies means not ony that these women know their craft about as well as anyone working today, but that both also have the ability to command the screen, along with whatever character they are playing, so that this character emerges as someone you would not want to cross. Some of this, of course, comes via their sheer height. According to what I can learn from the web, both are just under six feet (Weaver's 5' 11"; Hall is 5' 10"). Perhaps both have grown up used to taking command of situations.

Perhaps because Ms Hall (shown above) has not been lucky enough (or unlucky enough, versatility-wise) to appear in the lead role of a blockbuster such as Alien (which pretty firmly set Weaver's career down the "strong woman" highway), she has had the oppor-tunity to play roles (Please Give, The Town, A Bag of Hammers) in which she comes across as considerably more vulnerable, along with those (such as the one under consideration here) in which she outdoes in strength of character any of the guys on view.

As director and co-writer (with Stephen Volk), Mr. Murphy, shown at left, has come up with a chilling, well-told tale of a present-day ghost who appears to be wreaking havoc in a boys school located in the picturesque (is there any other kind?) British countryside. Present-day, in this case, is just post- World War I, when plenty of young British men went dead or missing, thus giving rise to grieving relatives all too willing to believe in "spirtualists" who might be able to bring their dead sons or lovers briefly back to them -- even if only as a voice, a thump, or an odd ray of light.

Ms Hall plays Florence Cathcart, who, though grieving for her own lost love, determinedly debunks case after case of these frauds until, one day, a teacher named Robert Mallory arrives at her door, pleading for her to accompany him back to that aforementioned boys school. Mallory is played by Dominic West, above, who does a lovely job here. He has air of genuine sadness about him that makes us, as well as Florence, feel quite protective of him. Also in the cast is Imelda Staunton, who's fine, as always, as the school's combo nanny/nurse, and Isaac Hempstead Wright as one of the more pivotal students. Chills, scares, surprise and romance ensue.

Mr. Murphy sees to it that his film is kept in a palette of drab, near-colorless greens, grays and browns, as though the sun can never quite come out, which befits these dreary times. The companion with whom I saw the screening resented this -- "When I can tell than they've done it, then I don't like it!" I could tell, too, but still found it appropriate and subtly, quietly maneuvered. The filmmaker also keeps his pacing measured but spry.

What best makes the movie work is its clever plotting that lets out bits of information ever so gradually, and with the weight of each bit seemingly equal, so that we take it all in but don't give anything too much extra thought. This acts a kind of red herring so that we can imagine that the key to all this -- which lies in the past, of course -- might also concern sex, sensuality, a somewhat threaten-ing handyman, or simply the shenanigans of the boys themselves.

The explanation, when it comes, is a good one -- better and less disappointing than are most in this genre. It makes sense on several levels, and while it might call to mind a few other movies of this ilk, to even mention their titles would be to give too much away. So go, enjoy, and drink in the wonderful Ms Hall. The Awakening, from Cohen Media Group and running 107 minutes, opens this Friday, August 17, across the country. Click here to see all cities and theaters.

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