A ghost haunts The Awakening. The ghost’s name is Sigmund Freud. He disturbs its ending, much the way he disturbs the endings of two other movies: The Three Faces of Eve  and Spellbound. But more on that in a minute.
The Awakening begins with a curious epigram:
Observation: between 1914 and 1919 war and influenza have claimed more than a million lives in Britain alone.
Conclusion: this is a time for ghosts.”
-Florence Cathcart, “Seeing Through Ghosts,” p. 7
As we learn later, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is the fictional heroine of the movie, and the book cited doesn’t exist. We viewers has no way of knowing this, since at this point we have seen only the credits. If this quote were brought in a bit later, via dialog perhaps, it might have come by its effect more honestly.
Florence Cathcart is a professional skeptic and a debunker of the supernatural. It is 1921 and we see her in the first scene–one that starts your flesh a-creeping right off the bat—crashing a seance to expose the lying hosts whose contrived effects are intended to dupe a woman seeking contact with the soul of her dead daughter.
(These effects are beautifully filmed: a dead raven, fine drops of splattered blood, the blurred reflection of the dead daughter in crystal: all tropes of the seance set; all unnerving; all contributing to a beautifully miniaturized movie-in-a-movie.)
After the séance is broken up and the police called in, Florence endures a sharp slap across the face from the duped woman (she had not wanted to be disillusioned, thank you very much). Florence retreats to her home. Her mother urges her to take a break from phony ghost busting. Florence, you see, works herself to exhaustion to flee her own ghost: she is grieving her dead fiancé.
There is to be no rest for Florence. Robert Mallory (Dominic West) appears, urging her to investigate the death of a student at the boarding school where he teaches. In yet another scene to make your skin crawl, he offers hard evidence of the ghost who may be behind the crime: photos of the ghostly boy, a dull blur standing next to live, solid boys.
So naturally, Florence goes to the school. At her arrival, another arresting image literally arrests her car: a group of schoolboys, out for a morning run, heedlessly herd onto the road in front of her, all in identical white tee shirts and looking for all the world like a flock of sheep. I don’t think the comparison was accidental: director Nick Murphy wants us to view them as livestock. Why, I wonder? Maybe this is the director’s statement about boarding school life, but if so, the statement is parenthetical and distracting.
The plot gets back on track, the tension builds and the movie is quite well constructed, at least for its first two acts. We discover the character arc we expect—that of the skeptic who is schooled in the supernatural—is not really quite what is going on here. The full story is more sophisticated. We are given jump scares according to the usual schedule, but these visions—that of a boy with a blurred, distorted face—are earned rather than given gratuitously. Even plot details that appear to be mistakes prove in retrospect to be cleverly placed clues. The school matron, Maude Hill (Imelda Staunton), is a fan of Cathcart and is said to keep a copy of her book of debunked ghosts next to her Bible. The boy Tom (Isaac Hempstead Wright), who becomes Cathcart’s companion, displays uncanny amounts of wisdom. If you assume Tom’s precocious speech is because the screenwriters (Stephen Volk and Nick Murphy) don’t know how kids talk, you are mistaken.
Sadly, characters begin to make unmotivated decisions. Distracting subplots involving romance and rape intrude, and the movie begins to lose its way. In one preposterous scene, a couple make whoopee so impulsively they forget to take their clothes off. Only in the final sequence, where the creepiness turns to terror, and then to resolution, does the movie regain its equilibrium.
Regained too well. Although the name Freud is never mentioned, the ending relies heavily, if subtly, on the Freudian theory of repression, and thereby makes the same mistake as the two movies already mentioned.
How odd that both the rise and the fall of Freud’s influence through the twentieth century have had little to do with evidence! The fall of Freud seems to have come about simply because psychiatrists can drug their patients into placidity. Freud was a genius with some genuine insights, but his rise was due to a certain titillation his ideas had, not because Freud had evidence of the unconscious or repression of memories. When evidence did appear to have come along in the form of The Three Faces of Eve, Freudians seized upon it. (Freudians, great skeptics of the spiritual, proved all too credulous in this case).
The psychoanalyst depicted in the movie (based on a true story) was too eager to map Freuds’ theories to her patient’s problems. As she asked leading questions, her patient, who had become infatuated with her, wove an elaborate fiction about multiple personalities warring for control of her body. In the end, the psychosis was blamed on a repressed childhood trauma: the patient recalled being forced to kiss her grandma’s corpse on the lips.
The case became a famous proof text for the Freudian model (and made for a truly creepy movie) but the lie didn’t last–years later, the truth came out. The multiple personalities were invented by the patient to win the ongoing, fascinated attention of the therapist.
However, a worse deception lies in the ending of that movie, as is also the case in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. (In the latter, we get some truly hair-raising dream sequences accompanied by music wrung from a theremin and sets from the mind of Salvador Dali. See this otherwise silly movie for those terrifying dream sequences!) Both movies depict the uncovering of the repressed childhood trauma which caused the patients’ troubles. Nothing wrong with that, of course–early trauma can in fact mess you up–but there is something wrong in the assumption such memories are typically repressed, or that a clever analyst can tease them out, or–least plausible of all–that the release of such a memory is equivalent to a cure. In the case of Spellbound, the patient experiences an disgustingly inappropriate joy as he is finally able to remember a grisly scene of family horror (which I won’t spoil by describing in any more detail, but trust me: it’s disgusting and horrible and the patient’s instant relief is wrong, wrong, wrong).
The Awakening suffers from the same bathos. In the end, after much horror and sin and tragedy are revealed, and a final murder is barely avoided, a character finds a ridiculous peace from knowing fully for the first time exactly what horrors and outrages were committed in the past. The relevant demons are exercised, and grace is dispensed so very cheaply. I didn’t buy it.