Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Fionnula Flanagan, Alakina Mann, James Bentley
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements and frightening moments)
Running Time: 1:44
Release Date: 8/10/01
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Review by Mark Dujsik
The Others is an exceedingly well-crafted ghost story that builds its suspense in the mind of the viewer. We are not given a series of shocks or frightening effects (i.e., ever-present voices, multiple grotesque images, etc.) as is done too often in movies like this. That’s not to say that those elements aren’t present, but when they do appear, the scare is genuine because it has built from a psychological origin. This is an old-fashioned yarn drenched in atmosphere that seems more like Henry James’ novel Turn of the Screw than the recent The Haunting or the insipid House on Haunted Hill. It’s a film that takes its time and never loses its intrigue.
In Jersey soon after World War II, Grace (Nicole Kidman) lives alone with her two children Anne and Nicholas (Alakina Mann and James Bentley) in an old house after her husband disappeared during the war. Three strangers come upon the house looking for work, and we soon learn that the previous servants just suddenly disappeared one day into thin air. Grace has a few rules for the new workers, the most important being that before one door in the house is opened, the other must be closed and locked. The reason for this is that her children are photosensitive—highly allergic to light. The children are forced to live in the house and are taught and raised by their mother with a strict, religious hand. The house, however, seems to hold a presence that defies Grace’s convictions, and as curtains open, doors shut, and heavy footsteps echo through the halls, Grace is forced to consider the possibility that there is either a presence beyond those living in the house, that she is losing her mind, or that there are other forces at work impressing either of these guises upon her.
Like the best films about haunted buildings, the house itself becomes as important to the story as any of the other characters. This is a large and imposing edifice, sitting in the middle of a fog-filled environment. While the children’s photosensitivity gives Grace motivation, it also is a great gimmick to keep the house dark and gloomy. There is also an interesting decision in the placement of fixtures in the house. These kinds of movies are often opportunities for art directors to show off, but here, designer Benjamín Fernández has made the house essentially barren. It has the period look and the few objects that are placed within add to the setting, but by stripping the house of furnishings and decoration, it adds to the desolate atmosphere. This is somewhat of a risky decision because we have grown accustomed to the grand haunted house, but this plain arrangement works just as well, if not better.
The story itself is essentially the stuff of all ghost stories. The exposition is slow but precise and always intriguing. As the suspicion and tension mount, the film starts throwing in little twists. Yet what is best about the story is that each plot point develops not from contrived circumstances but from the characters. When a character seems suspicious, it is not because the camera lingers on them staring menacingly when they are alone. He or she is suspicious because we question his or her motivations. The script isn’t completely content with this method, and occasionally it falters in contriving suspicion. This is most obvious during certain scenes with the servants. First, these scenes pull focus from the central characters. Second, they reveal too much too quickly. As the mistrust grows, the story finds a way to give an entirely new perspective on what has occurred without insulting the intelligence of the audience or betraying the origins of the tale. This twist on events is simple, unexpected, and anticlimactic. Needless to say, I loved it. And then once it has happened, the film doesn’t merely stop dead in its tracks. Like the best twists, it finds something new to work with and continues just long enough to give us something else to appreciate. In this instance, a strangely moving family drama unfolds.
For what is essentially a character-driven film, all of the performances are effective. The two children hold their ground, but the film is dependent upon one performance—Kidman’s. As an actress, Kidman has slowly made her way to this point. She really showed her full potential in 1995’s To Die For and over the past few years has really found her stride. There was her fiery performance in Eyes Wide Shut, and earlier this year, she was great in Moulin Rouge. She is great here again, giving us serious doubts about her character’s mental health and intentions. At the same time, though, she gives us a character with whom to sympathize and connect. Hit one wrong note with this character, and you essentially lose the story and the audience’s focus. Here Kidman proves she can carry a movie and turn in a tricky performance at the same time.
The Others is as surprising a gem as you can find in what seems like an increasingly tired genre. It has the elements of classic fiction, and then it concludes on a note that turns the genre on its ear. It’s needed that kind of revitalizing, and The Others is it.
Copyright © 2001 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.