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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Volk’

Normally I have a lot of time for the science advocate, evolutionary theoriser and militant atheist Richard Dawkins, but every once in a while he comes out with some rather off-the-wall opinions, usually when he has temporarily left his own area of expertise and is commenting somewhere else off piste. Fifteen years ago or so I caught part of a lecture the great man was giving on the presentation of science in the media, and he was characteristically scathing about the bias he perceived. Broadcast every week on BBC1, he said, was a programme with two main characters, one of whom represented a rational, scientific viewpoint, while the other was a mouthpiece for every piece of New Age-y and pseudoscientific piece of gobbledegook the writers could come up with. Every week the characters would present their solutions to a mystery or crisis they encountered in the line of their work, and every week the scientific explanation would be wrong. How ridiculous! How objectionable! How likely to turn the nation into superstitious cretins!

Well, er, hang on, Rich – the show in question was The X Files, and only having genuinely spooky things in it 50% of the time would probably not have helped the ratings, given this was a show predicated on the existence of spooky phenomena. Nevertheless, the Prof had a point: any work of fiction revolving around a skeptical rationalist taking on the forces of the unexplained is unlikely to see the protagonist proved right, simply because there’s no story there. Or, to put it another way, one of the distinguishing characteristics of ghost stories is that they have ghosts in them.

Which brings us (finally) to Nick Murphy’s The Awakening, which has come out a couple of weeks late for Halloween, but clearly wants to be a Properly Scary Ghost Movie. Set in 1921, the main character is Florence (Rebecca Hall) a – you guessed it! – skeptical investigator of the paranormal. Her work in the area has won her admirers and detractors in equal number, but almost at once we can sense that something deeper drives her – does she just want to reveal the truth, or is she secretly hoping to one day find evidence of a ghost she is unable to explain away? Some tragedy seems to lurk in her past.

Florence is approached by Mallory (Dominic West), a master at a boarding school in Cumbria. There have long been reports of disturbances in the house, and the same spectral figure has been appearing in school photographs for decades. Now a pupil has been found dead, apparently having died of fright, and for obvious reasons the school authorities wish to have the matter investigated.

Well, I give absolutely nothing away by saying that on this occasion Florence encounters an apparition that resolutely resists debunking. That we are in standard ghost story territory is apparent from very early on, possibly even before we meet the Creepy Domestic to be found in all haunted houses (played in this instance by Imelda Staunton).

I turned up to The Awakening with fairly high hopes, based principally on the fact that co-writing the script with Murphy is Stephen Volk. Volk is not really a big name screenwriter, but nearly twenty years ago he traumatised the nation (if you believe the legend, and why not?) with the brilliant Halloween mockumentary Ghostwatch, in which a routine outside broadcast from a ‘troubled’ suburban house became an excursion into complete terror (particularly for those audience members who switched on late and weren’t aware it was drama).

Well, as I said, The Awakening is a much more traditional tale, and – if we’re honest – considerably less impressive. Murphy contrives some effective ‘jump’ moments (the gentleman in the row behind me was shouting ‘Yaargh!’ quite frequently, and I believe I expostulated at one point myself) but can’t quite generate an appropriately creepy atmosphere to accompany them the rest of the time.

As a result, the ghost itself, despite a reasonably effective build-up, isn’t that memorable a creation (certainly not compared to Pipes, the malevolent presence at the heart of Ghostwatch). I think perhaps the story has been overly drenched in metaphor – hardly surprisingly, given the setting, all the characters seem scarred and haunted by events in their personal histories. This kind of metaphor – the marks left by the past on the present – is central to many ghost stories, if not all of them, so it isn’t a problem in and of itself. But, that said, I’m not sure it should take the place of delivering a damn good scare, which is arguably what happens here.

That said, for most of its duration this is a fine film, well-mounted and directed, and with excellent performances from everyone involved. Rebecca Hall is particularly good in what’s a pretty big starring role which demands that she runs the gamut of emotions. For most of the film, the script is solid, if not exactly innovative, with a dash of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (another brilliant TV ghost story) in its focus on Florence’s rational approach to investigating the haunting.

Unfortunately, the movie comes a serious cropper in its final act. Having been restrained and quite thoughtful prior to this point, the climax sees the movie throwing not one, not two, but three separate twists at the audience. (Although one of these has appeared in so many other ghost movies that it’s practically become a cliche.) There’s a definite case of diminishing returns going on here (when the final twist was revealed, my reaction was not ‘What?!?’ so much as ‘What, not another one?!?’), and I’m not even sure the whole movie hangs together coherently as a result. It would be dishonest of me not to say that I found the end of this film a serious letdown after a strong start.

Is it enough to completely spoil The Awakening? Well, not quite – the film does work well up to a point, the acting is good, and there are some extremely spooky individual moments, especially early on. It won’t scare you to death, but neither will it bore you there – just be prepared to cut the ending some slack.

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