The Others (Dimension Films, 2001)

 

The Others is an old fashioned ghost story along the lines of M. R. James and Henry James. This means the movie relies on atmosphere, fear of the unknown, and good writing as opposed to the gore, dismemberments, and very ugly monsters that form the backbone of most contemporary “scary” movies or movies about the supernatural. The Others is based on the simplest definition of “supernatural”- that which is above or beyond what one acknowledges to exist in the natural world. It is well to remember how horrifying is an event that we know cannot occur yet somehow does. Alejandro Amenabar wrote, directed and scored the film. This is an unusual feat and, in my opinion, Amenabar carries it off. The Others is rated PG 13; I presume that is for unpleasant themes and mildly scary sequences.

The story is set right after WWII and focuses on Grace, her two children, and the trio of servants who come to the house looking for work. The children have an unusual disease which makes them allergic to sunlight. Therefore the house, a large rambling structure secluded in misty countryside is shrouded in half lights, lantern light, soft lights that illuminate the middle of the room but leave the corners in rustling shadows. It is one of Grace’s rules, ostensibly to protect her children, that no door be left unlocked and that no door can be opened until the first door is shut. This, coupled with the darkness creates a frightening sense of claustrophobia and desperation. The cast is very small-another claustrophobic device; the characters and the viewer with them are forced to turn in upon themselves in their isolation creating, I think, a real mood of fear.

The movie relies on its two female leads and on the supporting effort of Alakina Mann as Anne. I don’t think the movie would be nearly as effective without its two female protagonists. Physical, social and temperamental opposites, the characters, as portrayed by two skilled actresses, play off of each other faultlessly.

Nicole Kidman is perfect as Grace, upper class, authoritative, but with an underlying stress and tension that is apparent in her every movement. Fionnula Flanagan is wonderful as the housekeeper Mrs. Mills. She is subservient but with a hint of slyness and superiority, as if she knows what is making Grace so nervous and is amused by it. In one of the first scenes of the movie, Grace is interviewing Mrs. Mills and telling her what she expects from a housekeeper. Grace is polite but very firm-this is after all an upper class woman in the late 1940’s; she feels no need to address a servant as anything like an equal. However, with all her “yes ma’am’s “ and “of course madam’s”, it is obvious that Mrs. Mills has no sense of inferiority and somehow even feels herself to be superior to her employer. We the audience cannot help but wonder what she knows and what exactly is the truth of the increasingly strange incidents involving Grace and her children.

The progression of the plot depends in a large degree on the daughter Anne, very believably portrayed by Alakina Mann. Anne terrorizes her little brother and is not played as a completely sympathetic character -- a welcome relief from the saintly, overly precious children one usually encounters in movies. Anne’s rebellion against her mother is quite realistic -- it’s just set in a haunted house. Just as understandable is Grace’s exasperation and punishment of the less likeable child and her obvious love for the younger, sweeter Nicholas. Anne sees people no one else can see or will admit to seeing; she tells family secrets to Mrs. Mills, she is determined to discover the truth behind the odd events in the household.

The supernatural elements of the movie are, for the most part, subtle and inferred -- curtains left open which, according to Grace, could be fatal to the children, hints and innuendoes from Mrs. Mills, unexplained sightings. The movie depends, to some degree, on the very subtlety of these incidents to create an atmosphere of suspense and dread. In one scene, a piano plays in a room that is supposed to be locked and empty; unless you’ve heard something like that for yourself, it is hard to imagine how terrifying it can be.

Eric Sykes, as Mr. Tuttle, a sort of gardener and general dogsbody, is avuncular and believable; I was floored to find that he’s a respected director, writer and actor of long standing on the British stage and screen. Lydia, the third servant, is competently portrayed by Elaine Cassidy. Both of the children in this movie are believable as children of their era. They have none of the affectations of the child actor being “cute”, which so often mar a movie.

One sequence that jars and doesn't seem to add much to the movie, is the return of Grace’s husband, played by Christopher Eccleston. I presume the sequence is to add more mystery to the plot and, in a way, it did. Since Mr. Eccelston’s haircut is quite reminiscent of another period, I inaccurately thought I’d found a clue to the family’s past.

An interesting element of the movie is Grace’s devout Roman Catholicism. This is not a negative in the movie, as it is in so many others, but it raises some interesting questions as events unfold and as the viewer discovers more about the past. These questions are not directly addressed, and I imagine many viewers won’t give them a second thought, but they are a powerful undercurrent of the movie.

I do not particularly care for the movie’s official website. Obviously, it was designed to recreate the atmosphere of the movie itself. However, when I look at a site of this type, I would prefer more information and less misty still shots. There was no screen biography or even the names of either of the child actors who play a central role in the movie, for example. There were also a lot of video interviews which were slow to download and probably impossible for those with older computers or slow connections.

This is an excellent movie with a great cast and story, but there are those who require a lot more action and gore to find a movie frightening or even interesting. Such people will not like this movie at all. It has an almost British talkiness. The action moves at a slow pace and, honestly, the plot does seem to meander a bit, which does not lessen my enjoyment but could annoy those used to a tighter, more event filled story. The isolation of the house, supposedly in the Channel Islands but actually in Spain, plays its part in contributing to atmosphere. The Others is an old fashioned haunted house movie, and you either like that sort of story or you don’t.

 

[Andrea S. Garrett]

 

The Others website is worth visiting.

To hear music from the movie go here.

Sites about cast members include:

Director: Alejandro Amenabar

Nicole Kidman (Grace)

Mrs. Mills: Fionnula Flanagan (Mrs. Mills)

Eric Sykes (Mr. Tuttle)