The Others (2001)

D: Alejandro Amenábar
S: Nicole Kidman, Fionnula Flanagan

Disappointingly slight ghost story inspired by elements of classic yarns including Gaslight, The Haunting, and The Innocents (and maybe, at a stretch, Rosemary's Baby). It arrives as part of a group of more contemporary chillers including Stir of Echoes, The Sixth Sense, the remake of The Haunting, and What Lies Beneath. It falls somewhere in the middle of the latter grouping. The film is reasonably watchable and competently made, but lacks the richness and substance of the best of them. It looks and feels like it should be better than it is, but in spite of good intentions and hard work all round, it is flimsy and bland. A beautiful woman (Nicole Kidman) nervously awaits the return of her husband (Christopher Eccleston) in a dark, sprawling mansion. A new group of servants (Fionnula Flanagan, Eric Sykes, and Elaine Cassidy) meet her strange children (Alakina Mann, James Bentley), who are allergic to light. The girl whispers about strange goings-on and unseen presences in the house, and amid much mention of religious dogma and bible lessons, there are rumblings about contact between the worlds of the living and the dead which threaten the sanity and sanctity of the family and their home. Why have all the servants disappeared? Who are the mysterious trio who have arrived on the doorstep and seem to know their way around beforehand? What has all this to do with the dense fog which enshrouds the house and the war which is supposed to be just over in Europe from which the father has never returned?

There is a twist at the finale of the film which may, if you do not see it coming, prove a chilling final frisson to an eerie and unsettling tale. Alas anyone with an ounce of experience in genre movies will see it coming after about ten minutes, leaving you with the cinematic mechanics to keep you occupied. These, unfortunately, are only mediocre. Muddy cinematography, surprisingly dull production design, and one-note performances are adequate to carrying the story to its climax, but leave the viewer cold and in search of textual and thematic richness which just is not there.

The risible remake of The Haunting had more to look at on a visual level. Even the architectural space in this would-be gothic mansion is muted. Despite the pervasive darkness, the sense of oppression is mostly evoked by lingering close-ups of the actors' faces. The environment is relatively unimportant, a blandly empty space which, ironically, is emblematic of the emptiness of the film on the whole. This places the weight on the actors, who do their best with limited material. Kidman is wide eyed and edgy, but there is little more to it. She has too much screen time to herself and not enough going on for her characterisation to move beyond that she establishes in the opening scenes. Irish thesp Flanagan has a nice, menacing presence, but again there is not much more for her to do than hit that particular note and play it over and over again. Young Mann fares better as the troubled and troublesome child, but there is too much that is familiar in the story to allow the character's preternatural wisdom to prove unsettling in a kind of Village of the Damned way.

The film is not especially eerie in spite of what seems at least an aspiration towards mounting terror. Director Alejandro Amenábar has taken on the difficult task of going for the slow burn instead of the cheap shock, which is an admirable goal. Unfortunately because both characters and scenery are so uninteresting, there really is nothing to draw the audience in apart from the suspense of the story. When this evaporates due to sheer generic familiarity, there is nothing left to fear or wonder at. The viewer then finds it necessary to delve into the textual and thematic material to see if there is something more deeply frightening going on. How long, after all, even at the best of times, can the dark hallway with the shifting curtains really scare you? It is when a horror film finds the darkness in the human soul that it gets to grips with your heart.

Sadly, close attention to the script reveals the lack of real emotional and psychological depth. The characters are not layered enough to generate any real complexity. They become automata, mouthing portentuous lines of dialogue which ultimately have no weight but seem to suggest something important is going on under the surface. There is not. Despite the plethora of references to religion, the film feels empty of spiritual content. This is not about spiritual unease or a crisis in faith: theological discussion is just part of the background, as cosmetic as any other part of the set. The lack of dimension in characterisation means that all such questions are relegated to hamfisted foreshadowing that there is more on heaven and earth than is dreampt of in our philosophy. Fair enough, but then we knew that anyway. The film needed to have something to say beyond the obvious and it does not. The same thematic weakness is evident when it comes to its consideration of social class. There is a whole working class/upper class sub text to most of the action, but there is no real sense of critique or subversion here. If this is the return of the repressed, then there is certainly no need to worry about the consequences of revolution. Without wanting to spoil the twist, it seems that things will quite literally always be the same. Its only other thematic card revolves around the image and nature of the family, but here again the film is vauge and overly familiar. It never really comes to grips with the ties that bind and the hopes and fears of mother and children in the absence of the father and has nothing to say about any of it that we haven't heard before. Freud and Marx there may be here, but pale echoes only.

The real power of The Sixth Sense was in the psychological and emotional consistency and the cohesion between the suspense of the narrative and the cathartic resolution of the story. The Others aims for something similar, but simply does not have the depth and detail to pull it off. Perhaps Spaniard Amenábar has been constrained by language. There is certainly a suggestion that the basic elements could have been woven into something more eloquent and involving. Arguably even a few tweaks in dialogue could have helped, and maybe greater clarity in geographical and social setting (why does this take place in the Channel Islands of all places?). As is however, The Others is a cinematic doodle, a minor work in a genre enjoying a deserved and long overdue revival but which is now, as always, producing its journeyman entries as well. Undemanding viewers might enjoy it on a slow night, but they're really better off trying out the largely neglected Stir of Echoes (presuming that they have seen The Sixth Sense, of course), or, for a real night of chills, a classic like The Innocents or The Uninvited. In this case new does most definitely not mean better, colour and Kidman though there may be.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.