Review: The Awakening (15)

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THE best ghost stories often have a gimmick or sting in the tail that sends a chill down the spine, epitomised by M Night Shyamalan’s audacious debut feature The Sixth Sense.

The Awakening is a haunted house story set in the aftermath of the First World War, which provides all of the requisite bumps in the night, but doesn’t quite get under our skin.

First-time feature director Nick Murphy, who co-wrote the script with Stephen Volk, generates a modicum of tension within the confines of his sprawling location and cinematographer Eduard Grau seduces our eyes, providing some justification for the film haunting multiplexes rather than the small screen.

Performances are solid, galvanised by a suitably nervous supporting turn from the imperious Imelda Staunton, but there is little here we haven’t seen or jumped at before.

Given the involvement of BBC Films, Murphy’s tale of spectres and shattered memories should scare up decent viewers when it leaves cinemas and makes a comfortable transition to terrestrial in the coming months.

Author Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) leads the crusade against bogus psychics and mediums who are swindling people out of their saving.

She is approached by history teacher Robert Mallory (Dominic West), who fears the corridors of his school are haunted.

Florence travels to the countryside just as term is ending, where she meets the school’s matron Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton) and handyman Edward Judd (Joseph Mawle), who clearly bears a grudge against Robert.

The adults are joined by pupil Tom (Isaac Hempstead Wright), whose parents are away in India so the poor lad is forced to spend the holidays in the dorms.

Florence sets up her usual array of cameras and scientific experiments to determine if there is any genuine psychic activity.

In the course of her investigation, Florence experiences disturbing visions and she begins to wonder if all the supernatural mumbo jumbo might actually continue a germ of truth.

The Awakening lacks the shocks and scares of the latest Paranormal Activity and the mood is unsettling rather than creepy or deeply disturbing.

Hall is compelling as the cynic, haunted by her own ghosts of the past, but the role lacks depth and the romance with West’s physically wounded professor simmers but never boils over.

Staunton brings gravitas to her role, while youngster Wright holds his own in his few scenes.

Fans of the genre will second-guess screenwriters Murphy and Volk’s plans well before the final flourish that leaves us furrowing a brow in disbelief.