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tidewaterreview.com

'The Awakening' -- 2.5 stars

As a 1920s ghost buster, Hall rounds up the chills in 'The Awakening' ★★½

Michael Phillips

August 30, 2012

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Photographed in a particularly brooding corner of Scotland, set in a boarding school for the exceptionally pale and haunted, "The Awakening" got a "whatever" reception in its British release. Certainly you can poke a hundred holes in it: The explanation of the plot makes sense on an emotional level while making hash of logic and plausibility matters, and the co-writer and director Nick Murphy has only a fair-to-middling flair for composing a shot wherein a live human is suddenly a-frighted by a specter. Too often even a casual moviegoer can predict, from the length and framing of such moments: Yes, the ghost will appear just to the right of center, in approximately … now.

But Rebecca Hall, vibrant even in her melancholy, is the star, so what might've been dismissible becomes a fairly diverting supernatural tale set in 1921, a time when the casualties of the Great War as well as the influenza epidemic has led to a spike in the general grieving.

The formidably beautiful and expressive actress from "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (soon to co-star in "Iron Man 3") portrays a London ghost-buster, an author and seance-debunker driven by science and logic and rational skepticism. Having lost her man in the war, she is a lonely soul, summoned early on by another lonely soul, a teacher (Dominic West) intent on solving the mystery of his apparently haunted boys school. Imelda Staunton, looking like she's seen a ghost every second of her waking life, plays the school matron. "An odd fish," she's called.

"The Awakening" lays on the atmosphere like gray cream cheese, developing a side menu of creeps (notably Joseph Mawle's rifle-bearing groundskeeper) to give Hall's character, Florence Cathcart, reasons to worry. The visitor's budding relationship with the sweet, inquisitive young pupil Tom (Isaac Hempstead Wright), left behind while his tormentors all go off on holiday with their respective families, guides the familiar direction of the script, which first-time feature director Murphy co-wrote with Stephen Volk.

Allowing for differences in setting, "The Awakening" operates from a premise strikingly similar to the recent flop "Red Lights." The new film may not be much, but it's a whole lot better than that one. And there's one very nice scene in which Hall, peering into a dollhouse containing tiny little stuffed figures, realizes she's looking at a doll version of herself, peering into a miniature dollhouse.

mjphillips@tribune.com

MPAA rating: R (for some violence and sexuality/nudity)

Running time: 1:42

Opens: Friday