starring Nicole Kidman, Elaine Cassidy, Christopher Eccleston, Fionnula Flanagan
written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar
by Walter Chaw The Others is an intricate character drama that takes turns shifting its suspicions on any number of scenarios and suspects. It subtly considers each of its small troupe of players as alternately worthy of mistrust, and its fantastic cast is more than equal to director Alejandro Amenábar's quiet attributions of innocence and diabolical attributions of wickedness. Throughout, Amenábar maintains the unnerving possibility that, despite the spectre of a hoax or a plot ever-looming in the sometimes-inexplicable actions of one or more of its characters, something paranormal might, in fact, be at work.
Grace (Nicole Kidman) lives with her two photosensitive children (James Bentley and Alakina Mann) in a cavernous, fog-choked manse off the coast of Britain, on the secluded Jersey Island. It is 1947, and Grace, with her husband presumed dead in the war, is left to fuss over the kids and to hire help in the form of the kindly nanny, Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), a girl gone mute under mysterious circumstances, Lydia (Elaine Cassidy), and a decrepit gardener, Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes). The Others is a film reliant on rules, such as those involving opening and closing doors that will provide the bulk of the apprehension: a rasping groan is never the house settling, and the sound of a child crying is never just the wind.
Writer-director Alejandro Amenábar's English-language debut, The Others is a Henry James-ian mood piece whose austerity is so beautifully framed that it inspires simultaneous reactions of chill and awe. Evoking John Constable's muted watercolours in its exteriors and time-stained sepia photographs in its interiors, it's a meticulous and stately period horror film of a type that is rare and valuable, understanding that an unexplained floorboard creak disturbing an impossibly oppressive silence is far more frightening than a stable of computer-generated monsters. When Nicole Kidman's lonely, widowed Grace discovers a turn-of-the-century Book of the Dead, we're distinctly aware that the macabre innocuousness of photographs of corpses is a fair approximation of what Amenábar's been bringing to mind all along.
Amenábar's genius is atmosphere. He creates so much of it in this film that by the middle, the fruits of the mounting dread ripe and juicy, every camera motion is cause for concern, and every dark corner houses a reason for trepidation. When the pay-offs do begin to pile up, one after the other, the shock of actually seeing fears depicted onscreen, even if they might still be the hallucinations of disturbed characters, is several times more effective than Hollywood's deadeningly literal bogeys. Too much discussion of the plot would ruin a film that depends on its frightening revelations; sufficed to say that the film plays fairly and, by its denouement, packs quite a wallop.
As delicate as a crumbling Tennysonian latticework, The Others is that most atypical of Hollywood productions: it is magnificently understated and dedicated to earning its reactions through that holy cinematic trinity of script, direction, and performance. If it ultimately is not quite the sum of its parts, its minor shortfall speaks a great deal more to the extreme quality of The Others' parts than it does to the atonal bits that slightly stain the sum. Besides: those three moments in which Amenábar rewards his audience's patience are themselves worth the price of admission. Originally published: August 12, 2001.