Even that enduring nonbeliever Dana Scully would be in awe of English hoax-exposer Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall). At the beginning of Nick Murphy’s atmospheric post-WWI chiller, she commandingly takes down a group of con artists perpetrating an oh-so-scary séance scam—an act that should inspire love at first sight for skeptics of all stripes. Florence maintains the unflappably defensive exterior of any dyed-in-the-wool atheist. But from the moment strapping schoolteacher Robert Mallory (Dominic West) enlists her to investigate strange goings-on at a boys’ boarding school, it quickly becomes apparent that this stalwart rationalist has a few deep-buried secrets, and not all of them earthly.
It’s a delight to see Hall—always a welcome presence since she made a splash in Woody Allen’s 2008 dramedy Vicky Cristina Barcelona—anchoring a straight-ahead genre piece; a lesser performer might have turned Florence into a facile symbol of liberated womanhood. (That the film shares the title of Kate Chopin’s landmark feminist novel is surely no accident.) Hall goes far beyond corset-busting theatrics, and as the bumps in the night force Florence to look inward for answers, the star moves into a fascinating spectral space all her own. Yet despite the actor’s best efforts, this handsomely made spook story (love those echo-prone hallways!) becomes less involving the more the narrative’s mysteries are solved. By the time all the tarot cards are on the table, it’s likely that you too will feel conned.
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