The supernatural has been a topic of interest since man has walked the earth. Life after death has piqued our ancestors’ interests, in attempts to gain some sort of closure for the inevitable end. Is there a sort of new life we gain upon crossing over to the other side, or do we simply rot in the ground as a forgotten body? Some believe there is no end of suffering — an eternal purgatory, doomed to haunt the halls which we once called home. In this week’s review on Fear Needs No Translation, the apparitions of the British Isles have returned to scare us once more in The Awakening.
Transitioning from television to the big screen in his 2011 film, British director and writer, Nick Murphy, has proven himself to be more than just a documentarian. Having experience in editing for the BBC newscast and directing a sizeable amount of television mini-series, Murphy previously demonstrated his cinematographic skill not only visually, but audibly as well. Utilizing expertly timed shots, accompanied by a soundtrack to enhance the fear, The Awakening chronicles a paranormal narrative that questions the morality of a post-war society ravaged by the ghosts of the past.
After the loss of her love due to World War I, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) has put all her time and energy into her work: debunking the mystical. Her writings, along with her assistance in many police cases, have made her a household name among the British public. When the death of a student at a boarding school for young boys turns into claims of a haunting, Professor Robert Mallory, played by Dominic West, turns to Cathcart as the institution’s only hope.
Reluctantly, she travels to the estate with Mallory to begin her investigation. What she initially figured would be the exploitation of a schoolboy’s prank gone wrong, quickly turns into a psychological thrill ride as inexpiable hallucinations roam the near-empty building. Alone, besides the presence of Mallory, Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton), and her son, Tom (Isaac Hempstead Wright), Florence soon discovers that there is more mystery to be solved than meets the eye. With a cast and crew of some of the best Great Britain has to offer, The Awakening is a labyrinth of an account. Featuring twists and turns along a bent corkscrew, this film will have you engrossed in this Nancy Drew meets Poe whodunnit story.
It has been seen time and time again in many horror films: an enormous house that traps its victims. This personification, often associated with older buildings, is the perfect fit for The Awakening, and Murphy doesn’t fail to impress. Close-quarter rooms, tight archways, and various barred symmetry throughout the mansion makes both the viewer and Cathcart a prisoner. This mise en scène is exaggerated with the smart use of close-up shots and low-key lighting. The close-up shot and extreme close-up are, more often than not, used to create an invasion of personal space between the audience and characters in the film.
Murphy takes this concept even further here, and considers the environment as a character itself. He really secures the fact that Florence is trapped in the mansion by imposing her face behind the bars found along the stairwell and framing her face in the archways. His use of low-key lighting helps to showcase the vulnerability of the characters. By placing the source at a lower angle in respect to the actors, Murphy emphasizes their facial structures, giving each of them a feel of malnourishment and weakness.
Foreshadowing is a literary tool that we are taught early on in grade school; it’s nearly impossible to read or watch any piece without having seen some form of it used in context. By combining this utility with motifs, Murphy finds a way to have the audience fearful of what’s to come. The best use of this, in my opinion, is the recurrence of the dollhouse. This child’s toy has been turned into an instrument of fear. Being an exact replica of the boarding school, Florence sees her unfortunate future through the foreshadowed exhibits in each room of the dollhouse, as well as past events to give this sense of being stalked. Along with dolls of everyone inhabiting the house, including the supposed ghost, fear is instilled in the audience because we know that the horror is right behind us.
At the conclusion of World War I, the economic and social climate of Great Britain had gone through a metamorphosis. Having been the origin location of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th century, the United Kingdom had a flourishing economy and a social class system that reflected its Victorian era caste system. In contrast to this, the British economy took a toll at the end of the war, and the blatant signs of a social class system began to deteriorate. Because of this, there was much social unrest, as people began to look for a scapegoat or some sort of outlet for their anger. Along with the PTSD from war came aggressive stress relievers, such as domestic abuse, affairs, and social exclusion. The demonstration and effects of these acts are seen firsthand in The Awakening.
Post-traumatic stress disorder didn’t become a psychological disorder until 1980 when the American Psychiatric Association published the diagnosis in the third edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Prior to this knowledge, many people simply put the horrors of war aside of madness among veterans. In this film, Mallory is a veteran of World War I, and this stress isn’t one that’s easily overcome. Among the stress of his memories, he also experiences seizures, which isn’t uncommon among those who suffer from PTSD. I think that Murphy purposely adds in this little detail.
Mallory’s military service never becomes a major topic of interest, but it does play a role in the way he interacts with Cathcart. He is very reluctant to act upon any feelings that may have risen during her stay at the boarding school. Likewise, Florence experiences her own personal anxiety, which causes her to form underdeveloped relationships. Being a widow, she almost refuses to create any kind of romantic relationship, though she does show a longing for that intimate companionship. Both Mallory and Cathcart are on the outside of society because of the symptoms they possess. In this verisimilitude with our own socially constructed norm, these alienated people clump together, and make their own relationships with each other.
The taboos of domestic abuse and affairs go hand-in-hand. These frowned-upon acts are seen among couples and is generally hidden from the public eye. Nick Murphy does a fantastic job of simulating the idea of concealment. Like any investigation, Cathcart has to collect her own clues to piece together this mystery. She ultimately does discover that domestic abuse and affairs are the root of the problems, which gains closure for everyone. In our world today, these monstrosities are still left in the dark as to not become exiled in civilization. Murphy intentionally pulls them out to show the world the result of hiding the truth.
The Awakening is an intense piece of work. Though it may not have the jump scares that would make it a blockbuster hit, Murphy effectively puts the trues horrors of life on display. Through dramatic close-up shots, the characters and audience are put into a chamber which we cannot escape. Lighting helps the viewers understand this idea of vulnerability to the mansion and the horrors it holds. The mystery we’re trying to solve is timed flawlessly through the use of motifs in order to foreshadow the fate of the characters, while still dusting off the imprints of the past. The awareness of domestic abuse, affairs, and psychological disorders is not one that’s well known. Speaking up about these issues will end the stigma they hold. Murphy is an activist that is paving a path for those who cannot speak for themselves. Bravo to this team of actors, writers, and all those a part of The Awakening. Until next time, Fortes signing off.
— Justin Fortes, Film Blogger
If you or a loved one are afflicted with a mental illness or are a victim of domestic abuse, there are many organizations out there to help. Below are links for those that may help.
- No Stigma Project
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
- National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV)
Do you have a recommendation for a film you’d like to see on Fear Needs No Translation? Contact Justin at FearNNT@gmail.com