Every once in a while, a movie comes along that is heinous precisely because it shows so much promise and then squanders it in an astonishingly terrible way. Such is the case with BBC film The Awakening, hitting US theaters today. Beautifully acted, it begins as movie about a skeptic who debunks seances and ghost stories in the 1920s. And then it takes an abrupt turn into the spiritualism its hero condemns, while also dragging her through scenes that are basically the textbook definition of gratuitous rape. But no, that isn't enough — this movie has to degenerate into an incoherent broth of things even worse than torture and plotholery.
Consider yourself warned. Just because a movie is billed as a cool arthouse historical flick does not mean it can't go where Twilight fears to tread. Spoilers ahead.
As I said, the movie begins with a crackling good plot, full of spookiness and science. Florence (Rebecca Hall) is a renowned skeptic in 1921 England who has written a bestelling book debunking ghosts. Her main motivation seems to be preventing grieving people from being bilked out of their money by mediums who promise contact with the spirit world. She uses the latest scientific instruments, and awesome undercover sleuthing, to figure out what's really going on during so-called "hauntings." Enter Rob (the awesome Dominic West), a hunky Latin teacher at a boy's school, who begs Florence to come to his school and unravel the mystery of a ghost boy the students have been seeing. One boy has just died fleeing it.
After a few delightfully hair-raising scenes, Florence uses her bag of scientific instruments to uncover the real culprits: mean boys and a cruel teacher who drove the scared boy outside without his asthma meds, where he promptly died. Human nastiness, rather than ghosts, are the problem. During this segment of the film, we also learn that Florence's motives are a lot more complicated than skepticism — she lost her lover in the war, and a small part of her hopes that ghosts will turn out to be real so that she can say a proper goodbye to him. So, a multi-layered character whose motives aren't black-and-white. Again, this is great to see in a movie.
And then . . . imagine the sound of tires screeching.
Once Florence has solved the mystery of the school "ghost," all the kids go home for vacation and Florence inexplicably sticks around. Because, suddenly, she's decided that there might really be a ghost in the school, based on some extremely fake-looking photographs showing a faded little figure grimacing out of a window. She's also become sort of deranged and hysterical, prone to fits of crying and wandering around aimlessly. Why has she gone from university-educated skeptic to weepy lameass in the space of five minutes? I guess it's because, as the school headmaster points out, women go insane if you give them a university education.
It really starts to feel as if that's the message of the movie, as our formerly strong and intelligent hero degenerates into a suicidal wreck whose main power seems to be her ability to scream "Rob!" to the hunky Latin teacher when she's in trouble. As she becomes more frightened, and more convinced there is a ghost boy in the school, Florence also turns into a sex kitten. Because . . . um? She randomly masturbates in a bathtub, and when she senses that the little ghost boy is watching her through a peephole, she stands up and throws off her towel so this ten year old kid can see her naked. And then, when she gets more photographic evidence of the ghost boy, she starts crying and immediately has sex with Rob. Why? Why would she do that? Because we need boob shots to maintain our attention?
Apparently not as much as we need a rape scene. After the incomprehensible strip scene, Florence decides to take a walk, and the school's weird groundskeeper decides it's time to rape her. Again, why is this scene even here? The groundskeeper is a minor character, and all we know about him is that he pretended to be injured to avoid serving in World War I. Therefore, we're left to assume he rapes Florence because A) she's a woman, and that's just what working class guys do to women; or B) people who don't want to go to war are probably rapists. Either way, it makes absolutely no sense and the long rape scene seems put into the movie for no reason other than to titillate at worst and demonstrate why women should not be allowed to go outside at best.
Ultimately the movie tries to come up with an excuse for why Florence is seeing a ghost, though not why she needed to be raped or strip in front of a little boy. It all has to do with a bunch of stuff that makes almost no sense and feels like a last-ditch effort to justify everything that happened after we left science behind and decided that ghosts are Spanish Fly for atheists.
I do not normally ever say this, but The Awakening actually offended me it was so egregiously bad. And in case you think that's because I am one of those people who gets really upset by shocking images, you can fuck off, because I loved Hostel and I gave Human Centipede a glowing review. My problem is with movies where violent sexual transgression is not germane to the plot, and is used merely to demonstrate, as The Awakening does, that the filmmakers assume audiences won't be interested in a movie about a woman unless she's raped or sexually aroused.
Want to see a movie set during the same era that manages to be all about sex and science, and features a strong female lead, without ever resorting to the appalling tactics of The Awakening? Then go rent the incredible, underrated indie flick Hysteria (starring Maggie Gyllenhaal) this weekend. It's period movie about scientifically-minded women who like vibrators, and the men who do not rape them.