Rebecca Hall stars in "The Awakening." (Cohen Media Group )
All supernatural thrillers spring from the idea that there are things about the human spirit we just can't understand. But an excessively tangled plot can drain all the color from that essential mystery. That's the chief problem with "The Awakening," a quiet, unassuming little ghost story, set in England in the early 1920s, that's ultimately more complicated than it needs to be.
Rebecca Hall plays Florence Cathcart, a distinguished author who specializes in debunking supernatural hoaxes. She has thrown herself into her work, it seems, because she lost a beau in the Great War — she carries his silver cigarette case like a talisman, a reliquary for whatever is left of his spirit.
She's overworked and miserable, but when a teacher at a remote boarding school, Robert Mallory (Dominic West), approaches her about investigating possible ghost sightings there — which may be tied to the recent death of a student — she accepts the challenge.
The keys to the mystery of the wandering ghostling may or may not involve a creepy caretaker (Joseph Mawle), an annoyingly helpful housekeeper (Imelda Staunton) or a lonely, orphaned student (Isaac Hempstead Wright). They may also, of course, be found deep inside Florence's own psyche, as she kindles a tentative romance with Robert, who's busy tussling with his own demons.
First-time director (and, with Stephen Volk, co-writer) Nick Murphy comes up with a number of effective, shivery atmospherics: The movie's color palette evokes tarnished sterling. There are children with hollowed-out eyes and howling mouths, visible only in quicksilver glimpses, and a doll's house whose inhabitants reenact real-life incidents almost as they're happening.
And Hall, who has the wide-eyed, vulnerable expressiveness of a young Mackenzie Phillips, plays Florence with a great deal of subterranean gravity. She's a quiet, introspective presence, and without overemoting, she suggests that grief can drive a human being to the tattered edge of madness.
But "The Awakening" takes so many unnecessary twists and turns that the final one, which should be a biggie, ends up feeling inconsequential. The movie bears some resemblance to Alejandro Amenábar's 2001 spooky-dreamy chiller "The Others."
But while that picture came off as ethereal and nimble — even the drifty footprints it left behind resounded with confidence — "The Awakening" just meanders like an aimless ghost.
MPAA rating: R for some violence and sexuality/nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: At selected theaters