review by Cynthia Fuchs, 12 October
Closing the curtains
The Others begins with a
horrific scream. A really gruesome, creep-you-out scream, issuing
from Grace (Nicole Kidman), as she awakens from a nightmare. With
the camera close on her white-white face, she gasps for breath, then
composes herself. Fervently Catholic and genteelly stoic, Grace
rises to confront her day. She's had nightmares before.
During the final days of World War
II, Grace is living in a huge mansion on the dreary Isle of Jersey,
a place picked out by her husband Charles (Christopher Eccleston), a
couple of years ago, just before he left for the front. Though
chances are slim to none, Grace holds out hope that he will return,
partly in reaction to the dire turns her life has suddenly taken:
not only have her servants mysteriously "vanished into thin air,"
but a strange malady has made her children suddenly deathly allergic
to sunlight. She now must keep the curtains drawn at all times, and
to ensure that no crack of light slips in accidentally, she carries
with her a clinking big ring of keys and locks every door behind her
before she moves on to another room.
It's no surprise that the kids --
Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley) -- are looking
pasty, even cadaverous. Still, they hardly alarm the new crew of
servants who arrive unexpectedly to apply for the newly vacant
positions. Stern housekeeper Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan),
literally mute maid Lydia (Elaine Cassidy), and crinkly yard man Mr.
Tuttle (Eric Sykes) show up on the doorstep, just on the chance
there may be work at the house, where, they say, they worked a long
time ago. Seeing Grace's distress, Mrs. Mills reassures her that
they will soon have the place in order, the dead branches and dusty
attic rooms all cleaned up.
Written, directed, and scored by
the young Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar, The Others
explores the evolving relationship between Grace and the servants,
especially Mrs. Mills, as this mirrors Grace's changing perception
of herself, in the world. Full of self-doubts but determined to
stick to her faith and above all, protect her children, Grace
struggles to maintain her respectable household and her sanity.
Actually, the house -- foreboding, massive, and creaky, not to
mention very dark -- is an apt metaphor for Grace's changing
sensibility and self-image. While she feels trapped within and by
it, she also feels connected to it, unable to leave, partly because
her children are stuck inside, but also because she's so used to her
solitude that she's becoming vaguely afraid to venture outside.
The film's concentrated focus on
Grace's internal struggle means that Kidman is on screen during much
of the film, and she makes an exemplary neo-gothic heroine, her face
drained of color and her posture achingly proper, perhaps especially
when some unseen scary thing is coming up behind her. And there are
unseen scary things in the house. Throughout The Others, what
you don't see is more dreadful than what you do. Grace's devotion to
her kids is admirable, of course, but the film is as much about the
oppressiveness and costs of being a mother, as it is about her
"good" maternal love. Within the film's architecture, Anne and
Nicholas are mostly extensions of Grace's troubled psyche. And this
makes their scary paleness even more pronounced. In an effort to
please their mother and avoid the effects of her migraine headaches,
Anne and Nicholas work hard at their school lessons, memorize Bible
passages, and stay as quiet as possible. Most of the time, they
appear to be eerily serene, whispering to one another about mummy's
recent "breakdown" (to which they allude in only the vaguest terms),
or fretting about the "intruders" who come to their bedroom at
night. In particular, Anne describes and then sketches a boy named
Viktor, whom no one else can see. Like many older sisters, she
insists on frightening while also looking out for her brother, in
this case, by detailing the differences between ghosts who "wear
sheets and rattle chains" and those who are less aggressive, like
Viktor. Nicholas is skeptical, but willing to believe her, as he can
come up with no other explanation for the noises in the house.
The kids' lives apart from Grace,
even in their confinement, make them seem like little strangers, and
Grace's increasing fearfulness and withdrawal only exacerbate the
situation. Kidman -- with the help of fabulous shadows and gently
probing close-ups -- conveys Grace's developing brittleness while
making you sympathize with her. Amenabar's elegant score -- mostly
comprised of stark, single notes -- raises the emotional ante while
making your imagination do most of the work. Grace's nervousness
around the servants, who are so obviously "other," by job definition
and by entrenched class system, is especially acute and well-drawn.
Mrs. Mills hovers in the hallways, quietly observing and judging,
and Grace begins to resent and depend on her simultaneously. Despite
her stiff-upper-lippish demeanor and continued attempts to get the
servants on her "side," in taking care of the children and
maintaining the house, Grace can't help but feel her grasp on her
environment is slipping away. Her loss shapes the film's gradual
narrative movement, away from some material surface reality, into
some more substantive and much more alarming surrealness, beyond
There's good reason for Grace to
feel this loss, as far as we can see, which frankly, isn't so far.
Given the premise -- that the house must remain dark at all times --
The Others has a built-in ghastliness, which it deploys to
great effect. As Grace walks from room to room, her sensible shoes
clacking on the hardwood floors, the camera follows or anticipates
where she's headed, but can never show explicitly what's around her.
Your vision is thus as limited as hers, and the film sucks you up
inside her emotional fraying, without you being quite aware that
it's happening. This isn't to say that the movie's structure is
perfect -- early on, you start to imagine where it might be headed,
as particularly odd events occur, but it's never so annoying as the
film to which it's being compared, the overrated Sixth Sense.
At twenty-nine, Amenabar already has established himself as a
filmmaker possessed of unusual subtlety and sensitivity. As in his
previous work, here the fragmented narrative forces your
participation in its unfolding.
And so, as it becomes clear that
"others" are not only external threats, but also coming from within,
you are also implicated, you are part of this fabric of relations
and fears. Though Grace is intent on "closing the curtains," she
can't keep the light out (so, yes, the overriding metaphor is a
little obvious). And her need to see mirrors yours. As she forces
herself to investigate her own home, discovering its history as well
as her own suppressed memories, she also comes to understand her own
complexities, her beliefs, and her relationships.
There is, of course and
unfortunately, an evolving context in which to read The Others,
having to do with its production history and current promotional
apparatus. Kidman's starring role has something to do with her
ex-husband Tom Cruise's production of the film (along with his long
time professional partner, Jane Wagner), and Cruise's complicated
relationship with Kidman and Amenabar extends to his appearance in
the upcoming Vanilla Sky, the U.S. remake of Amenabar's
previous, Spanish film, Abre Los Ojos (Open Your
Eyes), which starred the then unknown Penelope Cruz, who is also
starring in the remake and now reportedly living in new boyfriend
Tom's LA mansion. Oh, the tangled webs!
The drama came to a (non -) head at
the 7 August premiere of the film, where ex-"power couple" Cruise
and Kidman both made appearances, separately. I can't tell you how
many times I've seen the clip of the tensely smiling Mr. "Show Me
the Money" asserting his "professional" obligation to support the
film. In a weird, remote, like-you're-watching-a-movie kind of way,
the taut smiles and awkward bodies can make you feel badly for all
of them. And all right, while all this gossipy stuff has nothing to
do with the movie, there's an uncomfortable resonance in the
relentless sense of otherness that Hollywood breeds, perhaps
especially between those far-off "stars" and those human "fans" who
are trained to sympathize and identify with their idols. How much
more "other" can you be than to be a movie star or her fan?
Click here to read Cynthia Fuchs' interview.
PG13 - Parents
be inappropriate for
children under 13.