In 1921 London, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) arrives at an all-boys boarding school to investigate the alleged sightings of a ghost. She had written a book entitled Seeing Through Ghosts and, as the opening scene informs you, she spends her time investigating and debunking claims of contact with the supernatural. When the headmaster, Robert Mallory (Dominic West), invites her to the school, she seizes the opportunity to use her investigative skills again. Upon her arrival, the school's matron, Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton), greets her, and she soon meets an enigmatic young schoolboy, Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright). The more she investigates, the more she questions her disbelief in the supernatural.
Director/writer Nick Murphy and co-writer Stephen Volk succeed at providing you with chills without resorting to including gore or cheap scares. Suspense gradually builds as Florence experiences events that cannot be explained through science or mere reason. If you're the type of audience member who's afraid of the dark and of creepy-looking set design, you'll find yourself to be frightening quite often. The co-writers wisely omit important information so that you know as much as Florence does about the strange events that transpire. Something that a character says to her early on can easily serve as a foreshadow for the big secrets revealed in the shocking, twisted, convoluted third act. Unfortunately, those revelations and twists don't make much logical sense in hindsight and leave you feeling bewildered. Some of the editing, particularly during the supernatural events, are rather awkward and abrupt.
The Awakening never quite reaches the heights of classic ghost stories like William Castle's 13 Ghosts or Robert Wise's The Haunting, but it does come pretty close. It boasts a strong, moving performance by Rebecca Hall coupled with an eerie atmosphere thanks to the top-notch cinematography which provides enough palpable tension and scares to compensate for its weak ending.
In 1960's Paris, Madeleine (Ludivine Sagnier) worked as a shoe saleswoman before turning to prostitution to pay the bills. One of her clients, Jaromil (Rasha Bukvic), a Czech doctor, ended up romancing and marrying her. They soon moved to Prague where she gave birth to a daughter, but their marriage eventually crumbled and she returned to Paris. Thirty years later, Madeleine (now played by Catherine Deneuve) has married François (Michel Delpech) while having a steamy affair on the side with Jaromil (now played by Milos Forman). Their daughter, Vera (Chiara Mastroianni), has serious relationship issues of her own because she tries to seduce a gay man, Henderson (Paul Schneider), to fall in love with her even though he repeatedly tells her that he likes her as a friend. Meanwhile, her co-worker, Clément, (Louis Garrel), unsuccessfully attempts to romance her.
Romantic musical dramas are far and few between nowadays, so it's no surprise that Beloved feels initially refreshing once the first musical number appears. Those numbers serve as a form of levity or a way for the characters to directly express to you what they think and feel at that given moment. However, by the third time that you hear Madeleine or Vera sing, the freshness wears off and you'll start to become exhausted. Writer/director Christophe Honoré should have either cut parts of the songs to make them shorter or omitted them completely. As the plot grows increasingly darker and complicated, the musical numbers become awkward and distracting leading to a general sense of unevenness. They pull you out of the film's dramatic momentum just as you're emotionally invested in the characters' lives.
It's a testament to the impeccable acting abilities of Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni and Ludivine Sagnier that their characters feel so true-to-life. Madeleine and Vera both come across as complex, deeply flawed individuals who may not be particularly likeable because of their selfish actions, but at least they're human. Vera's persistent attempts at seducing Henderson grow tiresome eventually, and any intelligent audience member will be able to figure out that their relationship will not be a healthy or stable one for that matter. Had Honoré trimmed the 135-minute running time by at least 20 minutes, focused more on Vera's loneliness and, perhaps, explored Madeleine's infidelities with greater depth, Beloved would have been a braver, less boring and more powerful film.
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