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What is it about period ghost movies that seems to be such a sure bet? There aren’t that many, but each time they hit the big screen, they seem to strike a chord with viewers with their mix of classy nostalgia and Gothic fright.

From The Innocents to The Others, from The Woman in Black to lesser-known fare like St. Ange and The Devil’s Backbone, there’s something inherently creepy and absorbing about haunted house tales set in the past. The latest is The Awakening, which carries the mantle nicely, although perhaps more as a drama than as a fright flick.

It’s 1921, and Great Britain is struggling to heal the wounds left from World War I. Professional skeptic Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), author of the bestselling debunking book Seeing Through Ghosts, lost her almost-fiancé in the war and has since internalized her grief while busying herself exposing supernatural frauds. Her latest case is that of a remote all-boys boarding school in Cumbria that students insist is haunted by the spirit of a boy who died in the building years ago when it was a private home. The recent death of one of the students has the boys in a state of panic, and history teacher Robert Malory (Dominic West) beseeches Florence to help calm their nerves.
She arrives with an array of gadgets and tools to catch what she assumes to be prankster kids, but the longer she stays in the old mansion, the more she experiences unexplained events — most notably, the ghostly figure of a schoolboy roaming the grounds. When the students go home for the holidays, Florence and Robert are left alone with school matron Maude (Imelda Staunton), caretaker Edward Judd (Joseph Mawle) and one student, Tom (Isaac Hempstead Wright), who can’t make it to India to reunite with his parents. With the halls emptied, secrets are revealed and dangers arise as Florence uncovers a decades-old mystery that threatens to become the last case she ever investigates.

The setup of a devout skeptic struggling with his or her beliefs in light of a supernatural encounter is a familiar one in genre films, from 1408 to The Rite to The Skeptic and the recent Red Lights, but Florence nonetheless makes for a fresh, compelling character. She’s a 21st century woman stuck in the early 20th century — educated, sexually assertive, practically an atheist — with a thirst for vigilante justice that masks the insecurities and guilt of the way she treated her dead boyfriend. Every time she disproves the existence of ghosts, she hammers another nail in his coffin, further cementing the fact that she’ll never communicate with him again.

As such, The Awakening’s strengths lie in its character-driven script, from writer Stephen Volk, whose impressive (and oft-overlooked) string of genre work includes Gothic, The Guardian, The Kiss, Octane (AKA Pulse) and Ghostwatch. The Awakening often plays more effectively as a drama than as a horror movie, in part because of its well-developed characters and emotional performances and in part because the scares are rather tepid. Despite the inherently goosebumpy surroundings, director Nick Murphy fails to milk the film’s fright potential. It has its moments (a dollhouse scene is particularly effective), but Murphy’s background as a documentarian comes through in the sterile and predictable attempts to elicit screams. The cheesy CGI ghost effects don’t help matters and feel out of place in what’s otherwise a down-to-earth period piece.

The twisty story demands — nay, requires — repeat viewing, with some elements seemingly left “up to interpretation” and others just downright confusing. Given a little thought, though, and some backtracking, things fall into place nicely, and the intelligence of the script shines through with a insightful message about living haunted lives.

Download The Awakening
Download The Awakening
Download The Awakening

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  • Posted On August 18, 2012
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