by Michael S. Julianelle
Accomplished suspense yarn needs other ending.
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For the first hour or so, the tense, atmospheric new thriller The Others seems to be something special. A subtle, slow-building horror movie that runs on the viewer’s imagination rather than on special effects, The Others is a welcome respite from this summer’s disappointing crop of flashy, expensive bores. Unfortunately, the film’s moody individuality is undermined by today’s increasingly prevalent reliance on the trendy twist ending, which, in this case, owes both its modest success and its diluted failure to the audience’s familiarity with that other late summer thriller, The Sixth Sense.
Directed with astonishing confidence and letter-perfect restraint by Alejandro Amenabar, from his own script, this haunted house story gets its juice from the details. All of the action takes place in and around a beautiful, fog-enclosed mansion in England, circa 1945. Grace is a single mother due to the fact that her husband went to war and is yet to return, and she is alone in the house with her two children. Her housekeepers abandoned them, for undisclosed reasons, a week before. Grace has little contact with the outside world and spends her time caring for her children and struggling to keep herself together; we first encounter her in her bedroom, screaming herself awake from a nightmare.
The story begins when a trio of new housekeepers arrives at Grace’s door.
Grace shows her new servants, the knowing Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), a young mute girl, and the quiet, mustachioed gardener, around her home, and the audience is taken along. Together we are introduced to the shadowy, cavernous interior of the mansion, slowly gathering crucial bits of information along the way. Amenabar’s script is very tight and he ratchets up the tension perfectly, with each turn of a corner revealing something new as Grace relays her instructions to the new servants.
Some of the instructions don’t make much sense at first, but there are perfectly acceptable reasons for all of them: No door may be opened without first closing the previous one; the curtains must be closed before the children enter the room; only dim candlelight is allowed around the children; there is no phone or electricity (it kept getting cut off during the war, so they’ve learned to live without it), etc.
Once we get to her children’s bedroom, the conditions that have been arranged enshroud the children in an air of fearsome fragility. But with the introduction of Grace’s kids, her odd rules come to make sense.
The two children, Anne and Nicholas, are afflicted with a photosensitivity so severe that they cannot withstand any natural light without getting ill. Anne is the older child, and she is possessed with a playful, contemptuous intelligence that serves her well in causing mischief. She is prone to telling fantastic stories for which her mother has little patience, and when we see Anne teasing her younger brother with tales of ghosts and the like, it is easy to assume she is fibbing.
Anne and Nicholas both depend on their mother and fear her, and Anne is a lot wiser than she at first appears. Grace is not a superstitious woman, outside of her firm, almost fanatical belief in the Bible, and she is very reluctant to listen to her daughter’s tales. We witness first hand Grace’s stubborn, Bible-devoted discipline when she gets fed up with what she feels are Anne’s lies, but the audience is never entirely sure of the truth.
As played by Alakina Mann, Anne is an intelligent, possibly even wicked child with fire in her eyes and a bit of a mean streak. She even tells Mrs. Mills that her mother has gone mad. This is a suggestion that the housekeeper (and the audience) is both suspicious of due to Anne’s personality, and inclined to believe after witnessing Grace’s sometimes manic anxiety. Grace is wracked with grief and insecurity over her husband’s absence, and she is slowly losing control of her household and her sanity. The audience is kept constantly off-guard with a narrative that owes as much to Henry James’ classic novella The Turn of the Screw as it does to the best of the genre (particularly Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby).
We only see what Grace sees, and when she begins to believe her daughter’s stories, it isn’t clear if Anne is manipulating her mother or truly encountering ghosts. Suddenly, Grace is convinced that there is an intruder in the house, and she subsequently wavers between defending her home with courage and collapsing with fear. The servants appear to have an agenda all their own once they admit to Grace that they have worked in the house in the past, and their cloudy motivation, combined with Grace’s own unreliable perspective and our questions about Anne’s loyalties, keeps the audience uncertain as to what is truly happening. Things go bump, unexplained noises echo through the halls, and Grace attempts to chase them all down. What she finds is never entirely clear.
By the time the movie winds up to its disappointing conclusion, it hasn’t quite delivered. The tension is expertly mounted and the characterization surprisingly sharp, at least when concerning Grace’s family (the housekeepers don’t entirely convince). Nicole Kidman is fantastic as the harried, neurotic mother who both shakes like a leaf when scared and trembles with anger when threatened. Grace’s nerves are on edge, her sanity is under siege and her devotion to her children is sensitive to the point of being smothering. Ms. Kidman’s pale face and bloodshot eyes reveal a woman teetering on the brink, and her ability to make the audience believe what she feels, and not necessarily what she sees, is what makes the movie work. Is she insane? Is she being tricked? Are the ghosts real?
The film’s tenuous illustration of what’s real and what isn’t helps the been-done climax achieve its muted impact, largely because so many pieces to the puzzle are close enough to our cynical preconceptions that in attempting to make them fit, other less-expected pieces are able to sneak up on you.
But it’s not enough. The Others is a very effective thriller that must be called a near miss due to an ending that, even while adding a few intriguing wrinkles of its own, is too familiar to do justice to an expert build-up.
Michael S. Julianelle is a Boston-based freelance writer coping with his nearly debilitating zeal for entertainment and pop-culture.
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