Dir Alejandro Amenabar. US-Spain. 2001. 103 mins
Sumptuously crafted, with moody eeriness and almost surreal visual imagery, Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar's The Others is a terrific supernatural thriller that builds and sustains its considerable suspense, without ever relying on violence or special effects. Cast in a role she was born to play, Nicole Kidman stars as a neurotic single mother, raising two seemingly problematic children while her husband is fighting in WWII. Although effectively scary, and thematically recalling the blockbuster The Sixth Sense, The Others is an art-house film par excellence, a status recently confirmed by its inclusion in the Venice film festival's main competition.
Avid devotees of the occult film are the primary target audience, but, with the right marketing and strong critical support, Miramax can score decent numbers in major urban centres across the US with an English-speaking tale that still feels like a foreign film. In Spain, where the film opens on September 7, Amenabar's local boy status combined with Kidman's marquee value all but guarantee great success.
Showing a special talent for reality-bending thrillers, Amenabar has earlier made the equally impressive thriller, Open Your Eyes (Abre Los Ojos), the 1997 Spanish film that was adapted as Cameron Crowe's new film project, Vanilla Sky, starring Tom Cruise, here credited as the executive producer with his partner, Paula Wagner.
Like all good thrillers, The Others deals with the most primal human fears, such as fear of being isolated in a secluded house, fear of dark closets, the fear of half-open doors. In this particular case, screenwriter Amenabar works up a nice twist, building his suspense tale not around fear of the dark, a common element of the genre, but rather fear of the light.
Set on the secluded island of Jersey in the English Channel during the final days of WWII, the story revolves around Grace, an attractive if severe woman who is anxiously waiting for her beloved husband to return from the front so that her family can resume a more normal life. A domineering mother, Grace overprotects her two children who, she claims, can never be exposed to any light. The house is always dark, with curtains covering ever inch of the big, menacing windows.
As the story begins, three new servants appear at Grace's door as replacements to the former helpers, who had inexplicably disappeared one night. Tension mounts as soon as Grace realises that the servants have arrived even though she has not had a chance to mail her request for help to the personal ads section of the local press. Who are they' Gradually, it's revealed that each member of the enigmatic trio is familiar with the house, its surrounding cemetery and a bizarre history that's recorded in hidden photo albums.
Every once in a while the children scream out of fright, suggesting that the house is indeed populated by intruders. When her daughter first reveals that she has been communicating with unexplained apparitions, Grace is reluctant to believe her because it defies her devout Christian upbringing. Instead of consoling her children, Grace keeps punishing them with the kind of severe intensity that will increase the fears of normal children, let alone problematic ones. All the relationships get even more perplex and complicated when Grace's husband (Eccleston) suddenly returns home from the war and proves unable to communicate with his family and servants.
Amenabar, who also composed the ominous score, works well in the Gothic tradition of the haunted house (in this case, a grand Victorian mansion), a staple of horror thrillers that here plays as a legitimate character along with the human ones. As director, he deserves credit for building a subtle psychological terror that's entirely dependent on the viscerally real performances of his ensemble.
With her classic grace, porcelain-like beauty, sophisticated manner and forceful stare, Kidman gives a chillingly delectable performance (one of her very best), as a headstrong woman who is gradually forced to abandon all her beliefs and fears, entering the dreaded realm of the occult and supernatural.
Equally important as the superlative acting is the mesmerising cinematography of Javier Aguirresarobe, whose camera swoops and glides through dark, echoing halls and foreboding half-lit rooms. Reflecting the changing tone of the story, the camera quickly turns from calm and peaceful to harried and panicked pacing. At the end, both characters and viewers seem to have lost all sense of time, operating in a truly bizarre twilight zone.
Prod co: Dimension Film, Cruise-Wagner Productions/Sogecine/Las Productiones Del Escorpion production
US dist: Miramax/Dimension
Int'l dist: StudioCanal
Exec prods: Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Rick Schwartz
Prods: Fernando Bovaira, Jose Luis Cuerda, Sunmin Park
Cinematography: Javier Aguirresarobe
Prod des: Benjamin Fernandez
Main cast: Nicole Kidman, Fionnula Flanagan, Christopher Eccleston, Alakina Mann, James Bentley, Eric Sykes, Elaine Cassidy