Dominic West and Rebecca Hall

Though handsome to look at, so-so supernatural chiller "The Awakening" recalls "The Others," "The Orphanage" and other haunted-house tales of recent vintage, making an impression more derivative than memorable.

Though handsome to look at, so-so supernatural chiller “The Awakening” recalls “The Others,” “The Orphanage” and other haunted-house tales of recent vintage, making an impression more derivative than memorable. This U.K. production throws post-WWI ghost hunter Rebecca Hall into familiar goings-on featuring the requisite dank shadowy halls and dead children mouthing CGI-stretched Edvard Munch screams. Nick Murphy’s bigscreen directorial debut has good atmospherics that only go so far to prop up a mystery whose overdue explanation is convoluted and underwhelming. Ads highlighting the rote “boo!” moments should scare up OK short-term B.O. in various territories, with decent ancillary prospects.

We first meet best-selling London authoress Florence Cathcart (Hall) as she helps police expose another ring of phony “spiritualists” preying upon the grieving after a decade in which more than a million Brits died from influenza and in the Great War. Well-known for debunking such hoodoo, she’s soon challenged by brusque visitor Robert Mallory (Dominic West) to do the same at the boys’ boarding school where he teaches — and where one pupil recently died, allegedly scared to death by the ghost of a child said to have been murdered there some years earlier.

Reluctantly persuaded, Florence arrives at the large country estate and massive manor (once a private residence) of Rookford School, where students are kept in line by one another’s bullying and school discipline.

Beyond moody, stammering, war-wounded Mallory, the staff seems to consist entirely of unpleasant professor Malcolm (Shaun Dooley), menacing groundskeeper Judd (Joseph Mawle) and kindly house matron Maud (Imelda Staunton). Maud professes herself a fan of Florence’s books and hopes she can put all this ghostly nonsense to rest for good. Florence sets up her intriguing antiquated equipment for registering disturbances — and/or catching pranksters — then suffers a first night short on both rest and results.

Next day all the pupils leave for midterm vacation except for Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), whose parents are in India; he befriended the recently deceased boy and claims to have seen the specter. Florence soon deduces one of the staff is responsible for the “haunting,” and he’s promptly dismissed.

But naturally this conclusion proves premature. There’s a lot more running from floor to floor chasing phantoms before all is explained — rather ponderously — in a standard childhood-trauma flashback that too-neatly reduces all mystery to primitive psychological claptrap, while clumsily retaining some belief in intervention from the afterlife.

None of this is very satisfying, or particularly scary. Script by Murphy and veteran horror scribe Stephen Volk too often feels over-familiar and underdeveloped. Still, the long buildup maintains the promise of a spooky good time, disappointing as its payoff is.

The cast works seriously, though it’s ultimately let down by the material, with West coming off best as a Rochester type beset by murky torments. Hall’s performance is hobbled by the usual cowardice in letting period heroines actually live in their period; Florence is patly modern to a fault, even wearing trousers at one point. Staunton gets considerable screentime, but her character hits only one note.

Shot in Scotland and England in desaturated color, the widescreen pic makes good use of impressive locations. Tech/design contributions are well-turned.

The Awakening

U.K.

Production

An Optimum Releasing, BBC Films, Studiocanal Features and Scottish Screen presentation of an Origin Pictures production. (International sales: Studiocanal, Paris.) Produced by David M. Thompson, Sarah Curtis, Julia Stannard. Executive producers, Jenny Borgars, Will Clarke, Olivier Courson, Norman Merry, Joe Oppenheimer, Carole Sheridan. Directed by Nick Murphy. Screenplay, Murphy, Stephen Volk.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Eduard Grau; editor, Victoria Boydell; music supervisor, Alison Wright; production designer, Jon Henson; art directors, Nicola McCallum, Fiona Gavin; set decorator, Robert Wischhusen-Hayes; costume designer, Caroline Harris; sound (Dolby Digital), Colin Nicolson; re-recording mixers, Paul Cotterell, Rob Hughes; visual effects supervisor, Sean H. Harrow; assistant director, Toby Ford; casting, Shaheen Baig. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations), Sept. 11, 2011. Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Florence Cathcart - Rebecca Hall
Robert Mallory - Dominic West
Maud Hill - Imelda Staunton
Tom - Isaac Hempstead-Wright
Malcolm McNair - Shaun Dooley
Edward Judd - Joseph Mawle
With: Diana Kent, Richard Durden, John Shrapnel, Cal Macaninch, Lucy Cohu, Anastasia Hille, Andrew Havill, Tilly Vosburgh, Ian Hanmore, Steven Cree, Alfie Field.

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