This low-budget chiller from Nick Murphy represents his first foray into feature filmmaking (having cut his teeth on TV) and stands its ground admirably within a cluttered genre. In telling the story of Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), a professional debunker of mystery in post-war England, Murphy exercises just the right amount of control over his subject matter to ensure that its more over-familiar characteristics do not hamper its effectiveness.
Florence, we understand, is no ordinary 1920s woman. The film opens with her infiltrating and exposing a hoax ceremony purporting to allow contact with the dead, and establishes her as a determined woman, whose exact motivations are not immediately clear. After reluctantly taking on a job at a remote boarding school where a child has recently died, Florence is greeted on the steps of the isolated institution by Maud (a pleasingly restrained Imelda Staunton) who declares that she has “never met an educated woman.” Florence is certainly smart – setting up her old-fashioned ghost hunting equipment around the house and mechanically explaining its purpose – and behaves rather like a wisp-chasing Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, the film feels like a detective story at times.
Florence is introduced to the history of the institution through Maud and Robert Mallory, a war veteran teacher played by Dominic West. Shortly, the boys who live in the school are sent home to their parents for the holidays, with the exception of Tom (Isaac Hempstead Wright), whose parents live in India. With the huge school left almost empty, Florence is free to figure out whatever might be going on and, in the tradition of these films, perhaps come to terms with some inner demons as well.
This is a taut, atmospheric piece borrowing from a number of genres. It’s a period horror ostensibly, but plays out more like a supernatural detective story. That said, there is tension at times, much of which is well created by Murphy, even if it lifts heavily from well-established genre archetypes. There’s plenty of solitary wandering around the old house, with glimpses of this or that seen moving at the edge of the frame, creepy supporting characters with unknown motives and of course a few jump scares here and there. The film constantly battles with the derivative nature of much of its narrative – it’s likable and well played, but so very familiar, even down to some scenes which could be lifted from other films. But clichés aside, Murphy delivers some effective chills. A recurring dollhouse motif is used well on a couple of occasions, and there are one or two jumps that will catch even the most avid horror aficionados off guard.
Rebecca Hall does charming work in the lead role, much of which requires her to be silent and alone, and anchors the narrative well. After a number of good performances in recent years, Hall is beginning to stand out among her generation of British actresses. The supporting performances are good, too, and (with the exception of one disappointingly underwritten character) pleasantly subtle.
As things move towards the conclusion, it begins to look as if the film may trip over its own feet when the inevitable revelations start to unravel, but in actual fact it ties up most of its loose ends satisfactorily. Again, the ending is too reminiscent of other works to be truly outstanding or evocative, but it works in the context of the narrative and it’s handled well. The film leaves us with a nice final idea, too, one which suggests a perpetuation of a larger problem.
In the end, Murphy’s film is a well-handled and likable ghost story, revolving arou nd a good performance by Rebecca Hall and, while it is not a stand out in its genre, it overcomes the odd dose of over-familiarity with confident filmmaking and some technical flair.