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Grace Stewart and her two children, Anne and Nicholas live on an isolated estate, on the Isle of Jersey, off the English coast. It is 1945, the war has ended, and they await the return of Grace’s soldier husband and the children’s father, Charles. The two children suffer from a rare pigmentation disease that means that they can never be exposed to sunlight and their mother must vigilantly patrol the house to make sure that all windows and doors are kept shut. Seemingly out of nowhere, three strangers appear at the manor’s door seeking work on the estate. They join the small household and soon afterwards, strange things begin to happen. Anne, particularly begins to have otherworldly experiences. Grace increasingly becomes anxious about the others in their midst.
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This Spanish American co-production followed in the wake of the huge success of “The Sixth Sense” (1999). The same year saw an unfortunate remake of the 1963 classic “The Haunting”, which was still a commercial success. It must have seemed clear to filmmakers that there was an audience eager for more thoughtful stories of the supernatural. “The Others” joined this trend, delivering a sophisticated ghost tale. It is a simple narrative of an ordinary woman who finds herself in a terrifying situation, that gains its complexity from the development of characterization. The film makes clear that the tension of living in complete isolation on an occupied island during the Second World War has taken its toll on Grace. Her mounting anxiety is not simply that of living in a potentially “haunted house”. She finds solace in her devotion to her orthodox religious beliefs which she is desperately trying to pass on to her children. Grace’s psychological and spiritual journey is the core of the film. Amenábar, who wrote the original script, makes the mounting challenge to her belief system a central facet of the narrative. However, this aspect of the story does not overwhelm the supernatural element of the film. It is the ghost story which predominates.
Although the story is set in an English manor house, it was filmed on an estate in the north of Spain. Javier Aguirresarobe’s eerily evocative cinematography perfectly captures the haunted setting. The grounds swirl in mists, the house is at once both grand and menacing, and the rich, dark tones of its gloomy rooms and corridors never obscure what is crucial in a shot or a scene. Due to the children’s illness, much of the house is in shadow throughout the film and it is especially important that we are able to see in the dark. Aguirresarobe ensures we do. There are no muddy or confused shots.
Additionally, Amenábar wrote the original music for the film and it is thankfully minimal. He does not pressure us to feel anything as events begin to take their toll on the household, but discreetly uses a low key score to punctuate key scenes. Silence is often the most potent sound effect in a movie attempting to build suspense and Amenábar knows how to use it.
Amenábar’s dramatic conception is straightforward - a small group of people are caught alone in a mysterious house and must figure out what to do. This structure demands that the actors and the setting do the work of holding our attention. There are nods to the classic elements of ghost stories - the unseen crying of a child, muffled voices in the air, mysterious running through abandoned rooms. Mainly though, we experience tension building through the performances. Nicole Kidman as Grace, is in almost every scene, and she is very effective as the tightly wound, deeply conventional mother who must confront not only whatever it is that is encroaching throughout the house, but also the demands of two very bright, and, in the case of her daughter, Anne, defiant children. There is a keen intelligence at the heart of this performance. Grace may be losing it, but she’s not a fool. Kidman exhibits a nervous awareness of everything around her. As well, she captures the psychological panic that accompanies the slow discovery that everything you thought you knew might be wrong. The children Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), match up well with Kidman, particularly Alakina Mann as her rebellious daughter. These children are as alert and smart as their mother and they have definite personalities and motivations. Amenábar does not use them to work on our emotions or for gratuitous sentimentality. In a supporting role, Fionnula Flanagan, exudes a quiet authority when confronting the increasingly overwrought Grace.
“The Others” is a well paced, carefully considered re-thinking of the ghost story genre. The twist at the end of the story does not preclude repeat viewings as the writer/director has given his characters real conflicts, internally and with each other, that continue to hold our attention even after we know what happens to them.