Director: Nick Murphy Starring: Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton Time Out rating:
There is more than a whiff of stuffy, Downton Abbey-style costume drama about Nick Murphy’s old-fashioned ghost story – a frustrating ‘film of two halves’ whose themes also echo more contemporary supernatural thrillers such as The Others or The Orphanage. It’s 1921 and England is still reeling from the one and a half million lives taken by World War I and a subsequent flu epidemic. Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), an obsessive debunker of those spiritualists who exploit bereaved relatives by staging fake seances, is invited to an isolated boarding school by sceptical schoolmaster Robert Mallory (Dominic West). A boy has died in mysterious circumstances, and several frightened pupils – including lonely, sensitive Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) – claim to have seen a ghostly child at night. Using scientific reason and sophisticated photographic equipment, no-nonsense, trouser-wearing Florence is determined to find a more rational explanation.
The atmospheric storyline starts well, taking care to establish characters and events from their past that continue to ‘haunt’ and debilitate them. West’s grouchy schoolmaster is an ex-soldier wracked by survivor’s guilt, while Florence’s anti-spiritualist zeal is fed by her own shame at having abandoned a lover who was later killed at the front. However, when it is revealed that Florence was summoned at the behest of the school’s solicitous matron, Maud (Imelda Staunton), the script by Murphy and Stephen Volk shifts its focus, and our suspension of disbelief immediately goes Awol. A ridiculous revelation and a redundant sexual assault undercut all good sense, as fierce rationality gives way to absurd contrivance and hysteria.