Others, The

Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 11/20/01 13:41:56

4 stars (Worth A Look)

The Others is a satisfying ghost story, powered by the compelling central performance of Nicole Kidman.

It is 1945 and Grace (Kidman) anxiously awaits her husband’s return from the war. During his absence, she has defended their imposing Jersey Islands mansion from the occupying Germans and looked after the children, Anne (Alikina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley). Both children are extremely photosensitive; they suffer from a rare and severe allergy to direct sunlight. The house curtains are always drawn and shutters closed, and Grace locks the doors to unused rooms to avoid unwelcome light spilling in. But strange noises come from behind those locked doors, new servants (Fionnula Flanagan, Elaine Cassidy and Eric Sykes) have unexpectedly arrived on the doorstep, and Anne says that there are “others” living in the house.

Kidman’s physical characteristics and mannerisms have sometimes been a drawback in other roles, but she uses them to full advantage here. Her statuesque figure, pale features and breathy, little-girl voice help bring Grace to life. Kidman transforms her icy aloofness into a desperate facade of self-control for the sake of the children. Grace has been holding her household - and herself - together far too long. Kidman’s body language expertly conveys a woman rigid from fighting back emotion. She believes her restraint is necessary to maintain control, impose her will on her children and the servants, and protect her home and family from harm.

Kidman’s performance, aided by Sonia Grande’s stylish 1940s costumes, is beautifully of its time. Although Grace is quite capable of running a household, she’s eager for her husband to return so she can relinquish this responsibility and return to her embroidery. I could easily imagine Olivia de Havilland or Joan Fontaine in this role, fighting to regain her composure to reassure the children, while simultaneously scared out of her wits.

There’s also something enjoyably old-fashioned in the execution of The Others. Director Alejandro Amenábar establishes a chilling and unsettling atmosphere without resort to violent shock tactics or grisly special effects (he also contributes the creepy music score). The spooky old house shrouded in mist and darkness, with its drawn curtains and locked doors and lack of electricity, comes beautifully to life with the aid of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe and production designer Benjamín Fernández. The child actors are convincing, and well supported by the sparse remaining cast - especially Fionnula Flanagan, despite an occasional lapse into archness.

Amenábar’s screenplay has a modern twist towards the end, which is frustrating if you pick it early (as my companion did). But there are plenty of compensations in Amenábar’s skilful direction. The whispered voices, closing doors glimpsed in the mirror, Kidman wide-eyed with fear and, later, storming through the house, rifle in hand, like a fury - The Others is full of marvellous direction and memorable images. A simple revelation about a photo album unsettled me more than virtually anything else I’ve seen in a cinema this year.

This is Amenábar’s first English film and, to my knowledge, his first released in Australia. On the strength of it, I’m keen to track down his previous Spanish efforts - including Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes), remade by Cameron Crowe as the forthcoming Vanilla Sky.

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