Spoiler warning! The final paragraphs discuss, without too many specifics, certain turns in the narrative. A second warning, before that discussion, is provided in the review.
I never saw The Others when it came out in the early 2000s, and hearing reports about its subdued chills and twisty ghost narrative over the years, I always assumed it was just a pale imitation of The Sixth Sense. The good news is that I was wrong. While I still favour The Sixth Sense, The Others is a richly atmospheric production as well as a compelling and clever narrative in its own right. While a few elements keep it from greatness, The Others is a solid ghost movie worth watching or revisiting this October.
The foremost achievement of The Others is its almost suffocating atmosphere. Every now and then a film will deeply unsettle and oppress me with its situations and mood. Sometimes this effect is a product of the physical, tactile world created on screen, as in the case of the unbearably tight cave tunnels in the spelunking horror flick, The Descent. It can also be the product of a tension-building concept, as in the case of the oppressive feeling generated in Inception when the possibility of the dream-thieves just waking up if they die in the dream is suddenly removed and the threat of limitless time trapped in Limbo crashes down upon that film’s characters. Although the setting and premise of The Others are broadly conventional, the small tweaks writer-director Alejandro Amenábar executes have a strong cumulative effect.
Shortly after the war in 1945, a motley group of servants (Fionnula Flanagan, Elaine Cassidy, and Eric Sykes) arrive at an isolated country house on Jersey, an island in the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy. Her husband not yet returned from the war and her servants having recently deserted her, Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) hires the three, and introduces them to the strange situation in the house. Grace’s children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), are photosensitive, meaning that they are stricken ill by sunlight. The blinds are therefore drawn at all hours and doors are individually locked in an effort to prevent any accidental exposure to daylight. The result is a claustrophobic, dimly lit, immobilizing setting that really got to me when my mind began to think about all that could go wrong in such a house. Under such strict conditions, footsteps in another room or the discovery of open windows take on a much more sinister tone.
If the atmosphere of The Others is its best feature, Nicole Kidman’s performance is a close second. Kidman delivers a great performance as Grace, her faint voice and pale features playing well in the stifling, lamp-lit atmosphere. Grace is a devout, perhaps fanatical Roman Catholic, and her religious scruples add further disciplines and rules to her children’s lives. Kidman has played rigid or stuffy women many times since, but she’s probably never been better as the type. Kidman’s Grace is vulnerable but also controlling, nicely balancing the different aspects of her mother character.
The last thing to address is the double twist. Does it work? Spoiler Warning! If you don’t want any hints about the twists, read no further.
For me, the double twist is mostly, but not entirely, a success. The problem is that The Others opens with Grace waking up from a bad dream, and only afterwards do the servants enter her life. In other words, the servants are not our avenue into the story of the house. The fact that the film is not initially framed from the three servants’ perspective immediately alerts the viewer that they are possible suspects in this ghostly tale. However, this aspect could be a red herring, for the film would seem to play on our anticipation, calling attention to (but not fully revealing) the servants’ hidden motivations about halfway through the film.
The narrative eventually turns one more time, though, necessitating that everything that we have seen be rethought, including our initial glimpse of Grace. After one viewing it’s difficult to determine how successfully the film manipulates the viewer’s perspective in order to achieve these successive surprises.
While the final reveal is a satisfying engagement with the ghost tale tradition, it works only by undercutting the wonderful atmosphere the film has worked so hard to create. In the end, I couldn’t help regretting that the atmosphere and narrative couldn’t work in conjunction.
8 out of 10
The Others (2001, USA/Spain)
Written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar; starring Nicole Kidman, Fionnula Flanagan, Christopher Eccleston, Alakina Mann, James Bentley, Elaine Cassidy, and Eric Sykes.