Boys believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. I’m sure some of them even believe in God.
Great ghost horror movie. The acting is superb and the cinematography!! GIVE THAT MAN A MEDAL!
The movie starts out in a séance. A grieving mother sees her daughter’s ghost in a glass… Suddenly our heroine, Florence (The utterly fantastic Rebecca Hall, who was also equally amazing in The Prestige), appears in the glass too. We see Florence behind the grieving mother, where she grabs a boy in the background and rips the wig off of him, revealing that the spiritualists are all frauds. She is not a ghost hunter, because she doesn’t believe they exist. She is there to expose frauds who are capitalizing on the many grieving people left in the aftermath of World War I. After the scene at the fraud house, she goes back to her place, where a teacher at a boarding school, Robert Malory (the really quite attractive Dominic West. How have I never noticed him before??), would like to hire her to investigate a ghost at the school. Florence sends him to her study, ostensibly so that she can change her clothes, but she doesn’t want him to see her break down in the privacy of her bedroom. She did lose someone in the war and she understands why so many people are taken in by the false spiritualists, but each time she exposes one, it’s very difficult on her emotionally. She truly wishes that one of them, just one, could be real. She doesn’t believe, but she WANTS to believe.
Robert shows her some class photos over a period of years. In each one, there is a misty impression of a young boy at the end of the row of students. There’s something wrong with his face. Each student is accounted for and Robert dismisses Florence’s scientific attempts to explain the boy’s appearance by pointing out that in one photo, the same boy appears in the row and in the window behind. Florence agrees to investigate the boarding school, which had once been a private home. Apparently, the boys are so terrified that one might have actually died of fright.
Florence arrives at the school and meets the elderly housekeeper, Maud (Imelda Staunton, also fabulous. EVERYBODY IS JUST FABULOUS IN THIS!). Maud seems to be very emotionally overwhelmed by Florence’s arrival, almost unable to speak. She claims that she was just overwhelmed at meeting Florence, her intellectual hero, a real modern woman with real education. The headmaster is highly skeptical of Florence, but allows her to conduct her tests and interviews with the boys.
When taking a tour, Robert points out the groundskeeper, who pretended to be ill in order to avoid going to war. Robert is disgusted at him, as Robert was in the war, lost many friends and has an injury that forces him to limp and some serious PTSD. He has to suddenly leave the tour because he has an anxiety attack coming on. The scene when he rushes back to his room and is trying to deal with the flashbacks is so powerful. He’s shaking and trying not to scream as parts of his body will suddenly go rigid and then spasm.
The boys beg Florence to kill the ghost. In a flush of energy and confidence, Florence places various ghost or mischief detecting devices (bells on strings strung across doorways, flour on floors, cameras connected to tripwires) around. She still believes that it’s all a prank but she wants to put the boys at ease. In the makeshift dormitory that night (the banquet hall) Maud comforts a young boy, Tom. Florence, waiting in the dormitory for the trouble maker to appear, watches Robert take a bath through a peephole. I must say, I enjoyed the view as much as she did. I don’t know why he was also cutting the scar on his leg, but maybe it was to release tension or built up fluids. Suddenly, some of her detectors go off. She chases a boy with a pillow case over his head up the stairs. He disappears, but she notices a dollhouse replica of the school in a room. Something about it disturbs her, and we see a distorted boy next to her, disfigured by a huge hole in his face. She turns around, and he isn’t there, but there’s a man down the hall with a rifle. Florence chases him, but he disappears and she runs into Robert.
The boys the next day are all examined to find the culprit. Florence deduces that a young boy is the one she saw last night and he blames 2 bullies for forcing him. She also discovers that another teacher, Malcolm, was the one who left the boy who died recently outside. That boy had died of an asthma attack. The teacher is fired and Robert notices that Florence, once again having proven that there are no ghosts, quietly hang her head in despair.
The next day, the boys are all going home for the holidays. Robert, the groundskeeper, Maud and an orphan boy, Tom (the one Maud had been comforting in the temporary dorm) are the only ones staying at the school. Florence is on the jetty on the lake. She drops her silver cigarette case, embossed with initials that aren’t hers, on the jetty and it slips between the cracks. She tries to grab at it, but ghostly hands thrust out of the water and try to grab her back. She falls in despair and whispers that there’s nothing, there’s nothing and she falls into the lake. She wants to believe so badly, but just can’t. Robert pulls her out. She pretends that she fell in while trying to get her case.
In the kitchen, warming up, she has a talk with the engaging young Tom. She goes upstairs and takes a bath. She then looks through the same peephole, hoping to see Robert watching her bathe, but instead sees the same screaming face from the night before. She runs out in her robe and follows the boy upstairs, where she sees the dollhouse again. Terrifyingly, in each tiny room is depicted herself and the events of the previous day, right up to where she’s in the room looking at the dollhouse, but there’s a figure of a boy standing behind her. She whips around to see herself alone in the room. Imbued with a new sense of purpose, she decides to stay longer and sets up her devices again, letting Tom help. She reveals to Tom that her fiancé died in the war.
That afternoon the ghostly events happen again. While in a room, her devices start going off. Florence suddenly sees a woman’s heeled shoe appear and a broken glass. She hears what she thinks is Tom yelling ‘Mousie!!’ A red pool ball falls creepily down the stairs in front of Florence. In hallway, she is confronted by a vision the man with the rifle who aims at her. Florence backs away, screaming, and also triggers her tripwires to take pictures of the incident. She blames Tom.
Robert helps her develop the pictures. To her horror, the man with the rifle is not in the pictures, but the ghostly image of the boy from the class pictures is clearly in the corner. She is overwhelmed and Robert goes to comfort her, and they have sex. Bells start ringing and Robert goes to see what the issue is, but gets locked in his room. Florence turns over and the outline of a face suddenly thrusts out of the pillow she was next to. She destroys the pillow and finds inside the silver case she lost in the lake.
Distraught, she runs outside. The groundskeeper attacks her and drags her off into the woods to rape her. As he’s trying, the ghostly boy appears and screams at him. The groundskeeper backs away and the appearance of the ghost gave Florence enough time to regain consciousness and bash the guy’s head in with a shovel.
She runs back to the school, finds Robert and Maud and discovers that…
Amazing. Amazing. Amazing. What a wonderful film. The actors are all just so good. Rebecca Hall has the most expressive eyes and mouth. She just emanates grief and despair just by closing her eyes and the way she sets her lips. It’s just all so real. Even with Dominic West and his portrayal of the vet stricken with PTSD and survivor’s guilt. That was an amazingly powerful scene in his bedroom. I am just in love with these two actors and their work in this. It is very creepy when some of her detectors start going off. They look like weather vanes and damnit, it’s freaky as hell when they all start pointing in the same direction.
The cinematography is out of this world. I loved how there were many scenes with lakes and ponds, showing very sharp reflections. It made me think of how there might be another world shimmering under this one, a reflection that we can just see if we look hard enough.
Spoilers: There really is a ghost. It’s Tom. But only Maud and Florence can see him clearly. He’s very lonely and tries to make friends with the living boys, but he can’t control his image very well, so they see the screaming boy with the hole in his face. Not the greatest way to make friends. He and Florence are half siblings. They share the same father, but Tom is the illegitimate child (Maud was the man’s mistress) and Florence the legitimate one of his wife. The two children had been raised together, with Maud as wet nurse and nanny to the young Florence. But the man’s wife (Florence’s mother) was very jealous of Maud and Tom and hated seeing them in the manor. The man eventually had a psychotic break and he killed his wife in front of Florence, who ran through secret passages with her father blasting away at the walls trying to kill her. She hid with Tom, but their father heard them and shot at the wall, accidently shooting Tom in the face (hence the hole) and then killing himself. The young Florence had been so traumatized she’d developed amnesia.
I love this movie. Go see it. The end (there’s MORE!) is quite sad. The acting is amazing. The story is great. It’s more drama than chock full of horror. More like a drama with horror elements, but it works so beautifully. The horror (screaming ghosts, etc) is great, but more in the background and lends support to the plot. For once, I cared about the plot more than scaring myself.
5 chewy chocolate fudge cookies out of 5.