A nifty twist on the standard ghost story, this British period drama starts extremely well and then slips into overwrought melodrama. And while the plot feels a little too gimmicky, at least it's complex enough to hold our interest.
In 1921 England, Florence (Hall) makes a fortune debunking fake psychics who claim to talk to the ghosts of Brits who died from war and flu over the previous decade. Her latest challenge is to solve a mystery at a private school in Cumbria, working with teacher Robert (West) and matron Maud (Staunton).
Rumour has it that the ghost of a schoolboy haunts the house, so Florence sets out to find out what's really going on. But she has her scepticism shaken to the core by some genuinely bizarre events.
Like a cross between The Others and The Sixth Sense, the film blurs supernatural lines to leave us wondering what's real and what's imagined.
Everything in this house creaks, moves or goes bump in the night and, like the characters, we see constant glimpses of a ghostly boy in the corners. The filmmakers build atmosphere with a creepy handyman (Mawle), a wheezy literature teacher (Dooley), a barking reverend (Shrapnel) and a lonely student (Wright) left in behind after the other boys go home for the weekend.
As a result, the film is packed with goose-bump moments orchestrated to perfection by director Murphy. Yet while this makes us jumpy throughout the story, it's not enough to make us accept the increasingly goofy plot, which gets less and less clear as it progresses. Figuring out what's happening is virtually impossible and even in the end, after everything is explained, we're left with a few questions.
Hall is terrific, charging the film with realistic humour and cynicism that adds a nice counterpoint to the lushly gothic visuals. Her scenes with West are packed with sexual tension, even if we never believe they're falling in love.
And Staunton, of course, fills her role with all kinds of personality and innuendo. In the end, it's up to the effects and editing to bring everything together. And while it's quite entertaining, it's never original enough to provide a satisfying jolt.