[Deep Focus]
The haunting

Director Alejandro Amenábar follows up his twisty Abres los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) with the equally tricky and haunting The Others. As far as Amenábar’s effort to film a traditional supernatural yarn, this one succeeds admirably. The low-key, handsomely photographed production drips with the kind of atmosphere and barely suggested menace that was the province of horror film in the 1940s and 1950s – Nicole Kidman’s porcelain lady-in-mourning would make a fine Val Lewton heroine.

Kidman plays Grace, who lives in a secluded island mansion off the coast of England with her two children Anne and Nicholas during World War II. Grace’s husband, Charles, has gone to war and is presumed missing, leaving her to care for the children. The boy and girl suffer from photosensitivity and must be kept hidden from sunlight. Accordingly, Grace carries keys for each of the 50 doors in the mansion–only one door is to be opened at a time, to prevent light from streaming through the place.

As the film begins, Grace welcomes a servant family (Fionulla Flanagan, Eric Sykes and Elaine Cassidy) into her home. Two of them speak in thick but lilting brogues; the third is mute. Despite the influx of agreeable new residents, all is not well in the house. Anne has begun claiming to see ghosts, and Nicholas seems to be in a perpetual state of near-fright. Grace tries to pin blame for various strange noises on her new servants, but it soon becomes clear that something strange is going on.

Like The Sixth Sense, The Others is paced with glacial slowness by contemporary Hollywood standards. What holds interest is the low-key spookiness. As Grace, Kidman is on-screen much of the time, her pupils darting about behind wide-open eyelids, suggesting intelligence and anxiety. In her first scenes, she appears in dark clothing buttoned up to here; watch as her wardrobe loosens up over the course of the film. Just as good in their way are the two young performers portraying her children. James Bentley is a pouty thing, creepy as an Edward Gorey character, with a huge forehead and pale, nearly translucent skin. In contrast, Alakina Mann is a brash, Kidman-esque little girl who believes in ghosts and delights in terrorizing her brother.

By contrast, the actors portraying the servant family have little to do but skulk about and act increasingly sinister. It’s clear as soon as they arrive that they know far more about what’s going on than Grace and her children – and, crucially, the audience. Christopher Eccleston’s appearance amounts to a brief but impressive cameo.

The real tension comes from the juxtaposition of the weird goings-on with Grace’s faith. She teaches the children from scripture, and answers their questions about the afterlife with the matter-of-fact confidence of a religious woman. Despite Grace’s proclamations of devoutness, the disappearance of her husband at war seems to have rattled her. As the otherworldly stirrings within the house become more difficult to deny or explain away, the certainty of Grace’s beliefs is shaken.

The Others is a great-looking film. A series of drawings taken out of a book pass underneath the opening credits, and the texture of the paper is so clear that you feel as though you could put both hands out and touch the page. Meanwhile, Kidman and the children are photographed in soft, lucid tones that make it easy to lose one’s self in their world. The film’s real centerpiece is a sequence in which Kidman, fed up with waiting within the house, sets out into its misty surroundings; the grey-shrouded photography suggests an eerie sense of finality just beyond the estate border. Despite a career that spans nearly 30 years, Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe is all but unknown outside of his native Spain. This film should change that.

Amenábar, meanwhile, is up to roughly the same business as he was in his previous picture. Like Abres los Ojos, The Others relies on a carefully cultivated sense of mystery for its ultimate impact; this time, Amenábar lets the pace flag enough that the film almost gets away from him, but it rebounds during a strong conclusion. What’s missing, despite some rumination on our perceptions of death--at one point, Grace finds a book full of those photographs of corpses that surviving family members used to keep--is a bracingly fresh point of view that would liven up the proceedings. But so what if it’s unambitious? The Others delivers a satisfyingly shivery old-school ghost story.

Written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar
Cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe
Starring Nicole Kidman, Alakina Mann, and James Bentley
USA, 2001

Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Screened at Magno 1, New York, NY

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DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer