FILM REVIEW: The Others (2001)

The Others (Spain/ France/ Italy/ USA, 2001)
Directed by Alejandro Amenabar

Starring Nicole Kidman, Alakina Mann, James Bentley, Fionnula Flanagan

In my review of The Secret Garden, I said that many films which are held up as British classics are the result of a collaboration between British and international talent - in this case, a Polish director adapting a British book from an American screenplay. It is fitting therefore that the tradition of old-fashioned English and American ghost stories should be most fittingly upheld by an international director, which brings us, (super)naturally, to The Others.At its most basic level, The Others is a stylish and evocative throwback to the classic Victorian ghost stories, which in turn formed the basis for 1960s horror classics like The Haunting and The Innocents. Like the latter of these films, The Others has its roots in Henry James' renowned novella The Turn of the Screw: both revolve around children whom, it is suggested, can interact with a world beyond our own. There are also hints of The Shining in the use of panning shots throughout the house, and in several of the music cues. Alejandro Amenabar borrows from Wendy Carlos in his use of deliberate anti-climaxes following by deep terror.The Others takes place on the Channel Island of Jersey just after the Second World War. The setting is interesting due to the cultural differences between the Islands and mainland Britain, and the fact that they were occupied by the Germans (although Nicole Kidman is keen to point out that none of them made it to the house). Amenabar exploits these differences to quickly create an unsettling, 'other-worldly' feel: we recognise all the hallmarks of 1940s fashion and architecture, but they are so precisely and readily positioned that something doesn't seem right.The film evokes the immediate post-war period very effectively. Although the majority of shooting was done in Spain, the house feels British in every detail. The ornate and elegance furniture, the empty, echoing halls, the pale but elaborate costumes - it is almost too perfect in its recreation of wartime Britain. The film has a very pale visual palette to underscore the age of the characters' environment and the sense of personal and national exhaustion. Javier Aguirresarobe, who later shot The Road, contrasts light and dark to such an extent that it almost feels like sepia, hinting at the chilling revelations lurking in the old photographs.Because of its affection for classic cinematic ghost stories, The Others does contain a fair number of familiar elements. The elderly housekeeper may be much nicer than Mrs. Danvers, but she still has ulterior motives and secrets to hide. In a further reference to Rebecca (which itself borrowed heavily from Jane Eyre), one of the key plot twists concerns the contents or inhabitants of an attic. The use of fog as a meeting point between this world and the next borrows not only from John Carpenter's The Fog but from gothic horror: Susan Hill's The Woman in Black is set in a house cut off by marshland, and the title character first appears after the fog comes in.With so many familiar elements in play, there comes a point where the film has to make its own mark on the genre. It takes a while for it to do so, but it eventually achieves this through both technical proficiency and the substance of its storyline. On a technical level, The Others is very creepy. Amenabar uses the pale cinematography and period dressing to play up all the creaks and shadows (and there are a lot of shadows), and he achieves two really big jumps: one with the door closing on Nicole Kidman's face, the other involving the old woman and the cupboard where the children are hiding.Like all great ghost stories, The Others makes you question whether or not you saw something, and what that something might have been. It shares with The Haunting and The Innocents the device of a central female protagonist who, in one interpretation, has gone completely round the twist. The film establishes Grace as the audience's guide, using her strict values and sense of conviction to unnerve us. During the opening act, her character is set up as someone completely orderly and in control, in contrast to Nell in The Haunting, who was always a little on edge. Hence when the strange noises start to occur, we experience either the act of someone going mad or Grace's genuine shock at seeing her values so deeply questioned.Whereas The Haunting explored possible scientific explanations for the strange goings-on in a dark house, The Others is primarily concerned with the role that religion plays in dealing with or understanding the world beyond this. Grace remarks early in the film that she "doesn't like fantasies": she is a staunch Catholic who takes literally both the teachings of the Bible and, even more so, the Church's views on purgatory. The film's view of religion is mixed - faith in the afterlife is rewarded, while the dogma to which Grace clings turns out not to be enough.When Grace's religious outlook interacts with those of her children, The Others drifts closer to the work of Guillermo del Toro, who directed his own ghost story in The Devil's Backbone and would later produce The Orphanage. An underlying theme of del Toro's work is that of children being able to connect with another world, with some underlying force which adults have chosen to ignore or dismiss outright. When Grace's children say that they don't believe all that they have been taught about God and the afterlife, it's not simply a reflection of a lack of faith. It is a sign that they see the truth, the horrifying magic which Grace denies or avoids; as Roald Dahl wrote in The Minpins, "those who don't believe in magic will never find it".The Others is very smart in tricking us over where the boundaries between the living and the dead lie. In light of its final twist, the reunion between Grace and her husband (Christopher Eccleston) gains an added layer of poignancy; the joy and subsequent strain of reunion becomes overladen with grief and despair. Like The Shining, the film suggests that portions of individuals' souls are imparted into a location or building which has significance in their life, and that after death their spirit returns, as if one's life were recurring in eternity with all by way of meaning plain to see.The Others is also boosted by its great performances. It finds Nicole Kidman in her prime, following up her excellent work in Moulin Rouge! the same year. She has often been criticised for being brittle, but here it is entirely appropriate that she be highly strung: her character is very close to Deborah Kerr's in The Innocents, and she delivers a performance which is almost on a par with that. There are also great performances by the two child actors: Alakina Mann is terrific as the impetuous Anne, and is matched beautifully by James Bentley, who later played Geoffrey Rush's son in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.There are a couple of flaws with The Others. Although its ideas are interesting and thoroughly explored, it remains just a little too generic: it doesn't develop or advance the genre in the way that del Toro's efforts have done. It is a little too long, being very slow at the beginning and predictable towards the end. And in the scenes involving the medium, it treads a fine line between creepiness and Blithe Spirit, with the deadpan delivery of the medium's observers threatening to tip us over that line.The Others is a stylish and creepy retuning of a classic ghost story. In spite of its flaws it still delivers a satisfying amount of substance and shivers, which have not decreased in the decade since its twist was first revealed. Kidman and her child co-stars are on scintillating form, matched by solid support work from Eccleston and a 78-year-old Eric Sykes. Though it has since been eclipsed by The Orphanage, it still has the power to chill.

Verdict: Chilling if a tad generic


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