The Awakening

There is a tradition for Christmas Eve that this is a time for ghost stories, like All Saints being proceeded by Halloween, and Lent by Carnival, the arrival of the light and restoration, must be proceeded by the dark and dissolution.

Yesterday I was in London, waiting for my new passport to be processed, and so the obvious thing to do on a late, damp Friday afternoon was to go to the cinema.

A quick tramp around Leicester Square revealed nothing that was available, starting at the right time, but at an Odeon, in a side street, there was 'The Awakening' just about to begin.

Having no idea what this was (there was not even a poster), I bought a ticket and went into Screen 3, where there was precisely no one else!

For the first time in my life, I found myself sitting in a cinema on my own!

'Ah well', I thought, 'it is warm...and I have paid'!

'The Awakening' was indeed a ghost story, bent around a story of trauma and loss: individual and collective. We discover that Miss Cathcart's trauma (the central character) is both individual, buried deep in childhood, and touched by the collective, she has lost her love in the First World War. This in a dual sense: she had surrendered it (for reasons that become clear as the film unfolds) before she physically lost it when the man is killed in the trenches.

Miss Cathcart is a professional skeptic, a ghostbuster, who has a written a book entitled, 'Seeing through Ghosts' and we first meet her on a 'sting' operation, exposing a hoaxed seance in the immediate aftermath of World War I.

The film beautifully captures the social and psychological impact of that conflict. In one of the film's most memorable moments, as the fake medium and their assistants are being hauled off by the police, the grieving woman (victim of the host) comes up to Cathcart and strikes her, saying that surely she has never had and lost a child! Even false hope is better than none in the traumatic space of grief.

The film, though a touch over-wrought, is like Henry James' 'Turn of the Screw' (to which it owes much) in managing to dance a fine line between the psychological (how much of what unfolds takes place in Miss Cathcart's head) and the metaphysical.

It, also, does a beautiful job of dismantling certainty - whether the dogmatism of skepticism that obscures a faith in a particular kind (of solidly material) world or of faith that solidifies a world it has not experienced.

The main drama (and there are moments of genuine taut shock) unfolds in a school in the north of England where a ghost of a child has been reported and a child at the school has died.

It is all beautifully produced (as you would expect from a BBC Film) and the central performances are moving and able, though the final conceit, on which the whole turns, that I will not reveal here, does strain at credulity.

However, the wider parable of how living with trauma, carrying it fully seen, and vulnerable to it, is both more difficult and painful than any evasion and yet the only path through to a potentially fulfilling life is beautifully and well-made.

Random cinema going does throw up gems...


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