What should a ghost debunker do when she actually sees a ghost? I’d suggest browsing the Classifieds for a new job.
Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall of The Town) is invited to investigate a possible haunting in a boys’ boarding school by Robert Mallory (Dominic West). It’s 1921 in England and the after effects of the First World War are still being felt. Cathcart is a sceptic (think Dana Scully from an earlier era) and is grieving for a man who was lost in the war. She now busies herself with her work as a ghost debunker and author. The untimely death of her parents when she was a child is most likely what led to her unusual choice of occupation, and we wonder exactly how they died. Mallory has his own demons to battle; he still suffers physically and mentally from his time as a soldier.
The drama movies quickly from London to the bleak rural countryside, and a boys’ boarding school that reeks of loneliness, something Cathcart herself is all too familiar with. She is introduced to Tom, an orphan of the school and the housekeeper Maud who are delighted to have her there. It’s enjoyable to watch her set up the old-school ghost detection/people trapping gadgets around the house. She immediately notices the bullying going on between the pupils, the brutality of one of the teachers and the abject loneliness of the place.
An overwhelmingly gloomy greyness seeps from the screen, effectively capturing the sense of an old-fashioned chiller movie. Maud (Imelda Staunton) reminded me of the housekeeper from The Others, so I was suspicious of her right from the beginning. The dreary weather and gloom of post-war England add to the unsettling atmosphere, and the costumes and hair styles are great, as you would expect of any good period drama. Visually the film is flawless, but the pacing could have used some work.
The most disturbing scene in the film for me involved Cathcart and the doll house. My nerves were on edge the entire time just waiting for something bad to happen. I felt that Cathcart’s sanity started to unravel too quickly and the first half was much better than the second. Around the hour mark I began to lose interest, but the actors’ skills kept me watching until the end. I was expecting something a little more haunting from this film. It had all the ingredients for an intriguing ghost story: the recent death of a child, a huge, country estate that looks like it should be haunted, the housekeeper that seems to know too much, a ghost hunter…but I didn’t love it. The acting and setting were impressive, providing a chilling atmosphere, but the film was let down by a sloppy third act. ***