Directed by: Alejandro Amenabar
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Fionnula Flanagan, Christopher Eccleston, Alakina Mann, James Bentley
An elegant, supremely old-fashioned, methodically paced, unbelievably creepy horror movie, writer/director/composer (yes, composer) Alejandro Amenabar's The Others -- while not a film for every taste -- arrives on the scene to join the ranks of the best of the surprisingly few bonafide ghost stories the movies have given us. Not since Peter Medak's The Changeling in 1980 has an attempt at this particular kind of horror been so seriously -- and so successfully -- undertaken. Set in an old house in the isolation of England's Jersey Islands just after World War II, the film is a masterpiece of atmosphere. At its center is an extraordinary performance from Nicole Kidman. Her portrayal of the character Grace is nothing short of astonishing, since it requires Kidman to go from a seemingly icy, matter-of-fact (albeit intensely, unquestioningly Catholic) realist to increasing levels of terror, as more and more it becomes obvious to her that the very things she knows can't be happening indeed are indeed happening. It also becomes obvious to the viewer that her coolness masks a deeply disturbed neurotic. Fortunately, she's beautifully supported by character actress Fionnula Flanagan as a newly hired housekeeper who knows more about the strange old house than she admits. In addition, the film boasts performances from Alakina Mann and James Bentley as Kidman's children that are almost impossibly good, and without which Amenabar's strange tale would collapse. The film takes the standard trappings of most ghost and "old dark house" stories, and builds on them rather than reinvent them -- as is often the temptation. Amenabar borrows the classic images of this sort of film (there are shots in it that might easily be from Paul Leni's 1927 The Cat and the Canary) and reminds us just how unsettling a long, dark corridor or a roomful of covered furniture can be. He goes further, by not only adding to the form, but, in some ways, subverting it. For example, the two children suffer from a peculiar allergy to light, exposure to which will, we are told, cause them to break out in sores and finally suffocate. Amenabar here stands a genre convention on its head: Daylight has become more frightening than the dark. Yet the dark in Amenabar's film is also traditionally unsettling, so there really is no "safe" place in The Others, infusing every aspect of the movie with a sense of dread of the unknown. It is, in fact, the unknown that propels the film. Virtually nothing in the film is known. It isn't known whether or not Grace's husband, Charles (Christopher Eccleston), is coming home from the war. It isn't known where Grace's three mysterious servants come from or who they are. It isn't even known whether or not the children do, indeed, have the extreme reaction to sunlight they're said to have. For that matter, even the validity of Grace's religious doctrine is open to question -- at first in a small way, when her daughter tags her on her theologically incorrect concept of Limbo; then in larger ways, when she realizes that God has indeed allowed the world of the dead to cross over into the world of the living. In some ways, the film is Grace's personal journey into both knowledge and doubt. By the end of the film, Grace is aware of many things, including the fact that there is much she doesn't know. All of this works because Amenabar takes it very seriously. Apart from occasional recognitions of the absurdity of a central situation where curtains have to be drawn for characters to merely cross a room, The Others boasts only one bit of comic relief -- daringly placed at a tense moment near the end. Amenabar's conviction and his ability to have his cast convey that conviction makes it impossible not to believe in the film's mythology. Shock effects are used sparingly, but very effectively -- demonstrating that Amenabar could have gone for all-out horror rather than the pervasive, unsettling, unshakable creepiness that permeates his film. Done in an almost defiantly old-fashioned manner -- scene changes are accomplished by fade-outs and slow dissolves in the manner of movies of an earlier era, and extravagant special effects are nowhere to be found -- The Others is possibly too deliberate and slowly paced for viewers demanding a thrill or an explosion every few minutes. For the viewer willing to go with its thoughtful approach, however, it's a remarkable achievement.