Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Writing credits: Alejandro Amenábar
|Every house has a history.
In any house, families live, raise children, fight with their spouses, sometimes
cheat on their spouses, own pets, bury those pets and get other pets, have
visitors, nurse sick relatives, go about the business of life. The older
the house, the greater the history. Sometimes unspeakable things happen
in a house. There is a house in my neighborhood, for example, in which someone
committed suicide. Who knows what lurks within? The Westfield, New Jersey
Victorian mansion that once belonged to family-killer John List burnt to
the ground mysteriously, along with its original Louis Comfort Tiffany ballroom
ceiling. Imagine the ghosts that would have been left behind for future
occupants of THAT house, had it not been destroyed.
Every house also holds the secrets of every generation of occupants that inhabit it. It is 1945, and Grace (Nicole Kidman) is the current occupant of the huge, isolated house on the isle of Jersey in which Alejandro Amenabar's THE OTHERS is set. Grace is a high-strung, highly Catholicism-indoctrinated woman waiting for her husband who is missing in action at the end of World War II. Grace's two children, Ann (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), have a malady that makes them photosensitive -- exposure to light any brighter than a candle can be life-threatening. The three of them live in this gloomy relic of a house; a life that must be utterly dismal for the children, who spend day after day in near-darkness while their mother tutors them in the most dire aspects of Catholic doctrine. This highly-structured spiritual system appears to be Mom's only way of holding on to her sanity as she lives a trapped existence in the fog-shrouded house with nothing but the children and a memory of something terrible that Ann remembers and Nicholas refuses to. Grace's aggravation is heightened because all of the servants left a week ago, without notice and without picking up their wages. Across the moors come three somewhat odd people in search of work as domestics -- gardener Mr. Tuttle (British comedian Eric Sykes), cook and general household manager Mrs. Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), and mute Lydia (Elaine Cassidy). They are perfectly willing to adhere to Grace's more arcane rules, such as no door being open until another one is closed, and having all curtains closed at all times. It seems this trio worked in the house before, though the reason for their departure from their previous tenure is a mystery.
Meanwhile, strange things have begun to happen in the house. Pianos play in empty rooms. Footsteps are heard overhead when no one is there. A child is crying, and it's not Ann or Nicholas. Clearly, apparitions are present, and it seems only Ann can see them. Grace decides to walk into town to summon a vicar to bless her obviously poltergeist-infested house, and suddenly, without warning, her long awaited husband Charles (Christopher Eccleston) appears literally out of the fog., though something is obviously and terribly wrong with him.
THE OTHERS is a mystery wrapped in a riddle tied up with an enigma, but its secrets are for director Alejandro Amenábar to reveal, not me. Yet THE OTHERS is far more than just another haunted house flick. This leisurely, yet tightly-paced film, with just enough "jump" moments to keep aficionados of more conventional ghost stories happy, is also a rumination on religion; a funhouse of distorted perceptions; and a study of a woman faced with more difficulties than she can handle, one who if her daughter can believed, has already gone mad once before.
In the icy, tightly-controlled Grace, the equally icy, tightly-controlled Nicole Kidman finally has a role ideally suited towards her general on-screen persona. Grace, who lives alone with her children and those strange servants in the kind of house which ought to have Kate Winslet in a Regency dress running out the door and weeping her way across the moors, is the kind of religious fanatic that is obviously seeking to make sense of a life gone somehow and terribly wrong. She uses her religion (presumably Catholicism, though given her obvious upper-crust demeanor, she could be of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England) as a cudgel which she yields to keep her luminosity-challenged children in line. How these children are as normal as they seem given the dire threats with which they are inculcated day after day is anyone's guess; except that stories about hellfire and damnation seem to serve them the way comic books capture the imagination of normal children. Teaching her children about the punishments that await children who lie is Grace's way of keeping her own disordered, chaotic being together. Disciplined children mean a disciplined mother. And yet despite her religious hysteria, Grace is perhaps the least odd presence in the film.
THE OTHERS is Nicole Kidman's film, but the supporting performances partner her perfectly. James Bentley, and the terrific Alakina Mann as Ann and Nicholas are beautifully natural as their better-known peer from that OTHER ghost story flick and that Robot Movie. Yet it is the riveting Fionnula Flanagan, she of the unforgettable name and even more unforgettable face, who is Kidman's perfect partner. Her Bertha Mills is an eerie combination of Mary Poppins, a gingerbread house witch, Frau Blücher, and Manderley's Mrs. Danvers. Mills' eyes are soft and warm, but there's something vaguely and unsettlingly sinister lurking behind the grandmotherly demeanor. This character is a necessity for a story like this, but Flanagan's Mills is no ordinary head honcho of a haunted house. She teases with her voice and knows all with her eyes, and is almost hypnotic in her control of the proceedings.
Only the usually marvelous Christopher Eccleston seems wasted in this film. Sporting a rather raffish tan that sets off his electric baby-blues and makes him look, well, quite fine, he emerges literally from the fog, duffel bag in hand, in a state of bewilderment, as if realizing he was supposed to be in John Woo's upcoming WINDTALKERS and found himself in this film instead. Once again he's given nothing to do but stand and brood, sit at the edge of the bed and brood, and lie in bed and brood. And while no one, not even Ralph Fiennes, broods like this guy, it really is time for his talent to be better utilized.
The other star of this film is the overall production, which is dead-on perfect for this genre. Amenábar, who also wrote the screenplay and the musical score, has created as close to a Hitchcock thriller as you're likely to see in a theatre today, in which that which is suggested is far more frightening than what is actually seen. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe works in a Dutch Masters-style color palette that alternates between a warmly glowing Rembrandt and the sinister loamy greens of Hieronymous Bosch, showing us the house and its goings-on from Grace's point of view -- a mechanism that makes Grace more sympathetic than her shrill fanaticism otherwise would.
At not even thirty years old, director/writer/composer Amenábar shows himself to be a multi-tool player, with a flair for storytelling, the ability to coax great performances out of his actors, and a gift for pacing and mood. Already well-known in Spain, his best-known film, OPEN YOUR EYES, is currently being remade by Cameron Crowe, of all people, with the ex-Mr. Kidman, Tom Cruise, starring. It is difficult to imagine such an effort being compared favorably with this work of the real, the original, the hugely talented Amenábar. Jot down that name, kind readers; for this is a filmmaker to note well.
- Jill Cozzi
|Review text copyright © 2001 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.|