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“The Awakening” is a tense ghost story set in a boarding school in the early 1920s.

If you’re anything like me, you saw “The Awakening” available to watch on netflix and thought to yourself “Huh. I wonder if there’s any connection to Kate Chopin’s feminist short story about desire and sexual awakening.” The answer is no, although the trousers-wearing (at home, at least), cigarette smoking, atheist, ghost debunking Florence Cathcart has consensual sex with the emotionally traumatized but sex headmaster of a haunted boarding school, which is pretty great for a woman in London in 1921. Cathcart, who’s written a best selling novel about ghosts not being real, also works with the police to debunk fraudulent charlatan spiritualists intent on ripping off grieving patrons… an actual thing that actually happened, although in real life they pulled cheesecloth “ectoplasm” from various orifices, instead of using blood capsules and killing birds. After one successful raid, she’s approached by a teacher at a boys’ boarding school in Cumbria. A boy has died recently, apparently at the hands of a ghost, and the students are terrified. After a bit of emotional blackmail on his part, she agrees to join him at the school and investigate things.

At the school she reveals she attended Cambridge, unusual for a woman of her time. She sets up a variety of ghost/fraud hunter traps including tripwire cameras, and investigates the school. Despite some creepy events (including an alarming and unsettling dollhouse), she figures out what happened: some of the boys pranked her… and the dead child was killed because the English teacher locked him outside in the dark to help him “man up.” Terrified and alone, he had an asthma attack and died. “These boys must be strong– stronger than us,” he says in his defense.

The specter of both victims of the flu and the dead and surviving soldiers of World War I are laced throughout the film. There’s conflict between Robert Mallory, the teacher who contacted Cathcart, who is a veteran and Edward Judd, the groundskeeper, who faked physical disability to avoid being drafted. Mallory resents Judd’s cowardice while Judd resents that Mallory and other veterans are treated as heroes, as his betters. Cathcart, it turns out, is obsessed with ghosts because she desperately wants them to be real, she desperately wants to make amends to her dead fiance.

The acting in the film is fantastic, and the cinematography is interesting. It has a washed out, faded look and feel to it that I absolutely adored. Had the movie ended with Cathcart solving the mystery of the student’s death and leaving the fate of ghosts up in the air, I would have been very happy. A nice little mystery neatly solved, with the question of spirits not conclusively solved. Sadly, the movie continues on, and although the acting and atmosphere are both wonderful the plot descends into convoluted yet predictable plot twists and el oh el the skeptic is proven wrongity wrong about her deeply held beliefs and career.

There’s also an attempted rape scene, where Judd just happens to witness Cathcart and Mallory having consensual sex, so he decides that Cathcart is a slut and he beats her and tries to rape her, because that’s the price that must be paid if one is to see a woman in a film I guess. It’s a price I’m getting increasingly tired of paying, and quite frankly I’m getting burnt out on movies at this point. I was really enjoying “The Awakening” ridiculous over-telegraphed “plot twists” and all, and then BAM! a violent struggle and attempted rape of a very cool woman. There’s no escaping it. And that’s just so incredibly depressing and disheartening.

If the movie had ended after the mystery of the student’s death was solved, I would have rated this a 4 out of 5 stars. But it went on and took some bad turns and ultimately, as much as I wanted to like this movie, it only gets 3 out of 5 stars. Which is a shame. The acting is great, the ghostiness is great, the creep actor ramps up nicely (I’ve never seen such an effective use of a spooky dollhouse), and the cinematography is gorgeous. Alas.

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December 2015

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