For those underwhelmed by James Watkins's mediocre film adaptation of The Woman in Black, here’s a much more substantial proposition. Nick Murphy’s superior ghost story - the director’s debut feature - failed to generate much interest on its brief theatrical release last year. But it turns out to be a stylish, intriguing and highly distinctive piece of work that marks Murphy out as a talent to watch. The movie is so rich, visually, that I regret not having seen it on a big screen, but I was very glad to have the opportunity to catch it on DVD, and would recommend it highly.
The film unfolds at Rockwood, a boy’s boarding school, in 1921. Rebecca Hall plays Florence Cathcart, a writer and academic of (you guessed) an unwavering rationalist stance who revels in exposing the supernatural as a falsity. (She’s introduced hijacking a séance.) Florence is approached by a schoolmaster at Rockwood, Robert Mallory (Dominic West), who seeks her advice about a ghostly apparition at Rockwood, which has apparently resulted in the death of a child. Arriving at the school, Florence is eager to uncover a logical explanation for this happening, but soon finds her cynicism tested by a series of strange events and appearances.
The premise - a sceptic’s awakening to the "reality" of the supernatural - is familiar enough. But while tipping its hat to a few classics of the genre - The Turn of the Screw and The Others, most notably - Murphy’s movie avoids getting bogged down in a tedious game of spot-the-homage. Instead, the film moves into some unforeseen territory as it progresses - with erotic and emotional undercurrents rising powerfully to the fore. Murphy proves himself a master of the eerie set-piece - a stunning sequence involving a doll’s house is especially fine - and the movie becomes genuinely disturbing and disorientating in its final stretch, a few scenes achieving a hallucinatory intensity as what, precisely, Florence needs to "awaken" to is gradually revealed.
Well supported by West and by Imelda Staunton in a pivotal secondary role, Hall gives a strong, distinguished performance that compellingly charts Florence’s journey from smug assurance to uncertainty, terror and recognition. Her presence anchors this sensual, elegant, chilling and moving film - one that’s deeply rooted, as the best ghost stories tend to be, in the experience of loss and grief.