Juliet Stevenson and Jared Harris must contend with the sudden return of a child after a ten-year absence 


Source: Dublin International Film Festival


Dir/scr: Virginia Gilbert. UK. 2023. 90mins

Ten years after the disappearance of their teenage daughter, a couple is confronted by a young woman claiming to be that long-lost girl. The mystery behind her disappearance becomes secondary to the emotional impact of her return in the second feature from writer/director Virginia Gilbert, which grows more jagged and intriguing the more it strays from the conventional. A strong cast should attract attention to this small scale drama, following a world premiere in Dublin. Signature have acquired UK and Irish rights.

Grows more jagged and intriguing the more it strays from the conventional

A Screen Star of Tomorrow in 2008, Gilbert made her feature debut with A Long Way From Home (2013), a tale of British ex-pats in France. Her follow-up focuses on London electrician John (Jared Harris, who also serves as an executive producer) and his wife Mary (Juliet Stevenson), a teaching assistant. To mark the tenth anniversary of their daughter’s disappearance, they have been persuaded to make a public appeal for information.

The demands of work and numbing daily routines sustain their existence, but it feels as if their lives have been robbed of colour. The impression is subtly underlined by the neutral shades in a home of grey sofas, stark walls and joyless meals. John glimpses hope in every 20-something woman he sees in a crowd. Mary sits alone, talking to a daughter she may never see again. Full of guilt and self-reproach, the couple trails clouds of sadness.

Initially, the sheer presence of acting heavyweights Stevenson and Harris works against easy acceptance of Mary and John as an ordinary London couple. The plot itself could easily serve as the basis of a routine television thriller. Then, Clare (Erin Doherty) returns and things start to cut a little deeper. The parents have very different responses to their first sight of Clare in a decade. Mary is elated and ready to embrace this miracle. John is full of questions and anger. Mary lives in the moment, John wants ten years’ worth of answers. 

The film also questions whether Clare is who she claims to be, and makes us consider the central couple afresh. Stevenson brings Mary into the light; showing a woman radiant with joy and thrilled by this second chance. John seems to plunger further into the darkness and almost becomes an anguished  figure from a Paul Schrader script. We start to question him as a concerned parent and wonder about the nature of his relationship with his teenage daughter. The twists here are not plot developments but what is revealed about character.

Doherty (The Crown, Firebrand etc) makes Clare brittle, defensive and apologetic. She seems to flinch from the world as if expecting blows of retribution. Her nervous looks and hesitations make her character a believable prodigal daughter but leave enough doubt about her to sustain the film’s central mystery.

A compact running time and the use of close-ups keeps an unrelenting focus on the emotional toll of the situation. Flashbacks are studded throughout, presenting moments of affection from the family’s past and Clare’s childhood. Harris is particularly effective during a long, wrenching scene in which the camera remains fixed on him as he listens to a confessional from Clare. Sketchy in places, Reawakening ultimately develops into an absorbing and effective tale with an echo of Anatomy Of A Fall in its acceptance that truth is often what you choose to believe.

Production companies: Little Light Film Productions, Rustle Up Productions

International sales: West End Films  info@westendfilms.com

Producers: Barry Castagnola, Virginia Gilbert

Cinematography: Giles Harvey

Production design: Aimee Meek

Editing: Derek Ryan

Music: Torquil Munro

Main cast:  Jared Harris, Juliet Stevenson, Erin Doherty, Niamh Cusack