Eerie 'Others' could have been much more
The mother, Grace, is raising her children alone while her husband, Charles (Christopher Eccleston), is off fighting a war or maybe missing in action.
It's deliberately unclear what the time frame is here, but we're on the Isle of Jersey, off the coast of Normandy.
Grace's children have a peculiar problem. Anne (Alakina Mann), who seems to be about 11, and Nicholas (James Bentley), who is about 8, are 'severely allergic' to light.
There's no electricity in the isolated mansion in which they live. The children are kept together behind closed draperies in locked rooms, lest they dash into a lighted space.
Household chores are performed by a trio of servants who have enlisted for employment simply by turning up in a moment of need: Mrs. Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes) and the young, distressed mute Lydia (Elaine Cassidy).
It seems the servants already know the house. Bertha effectively asserts a territorial authority over the house.
The supernatural works on two levels.
Grace, identifiable as Catholic by her rosary, has odd misconceptions about Catholic teachings on purgatory and limbo. And she speaks with hell and brimstone and requires her children to read the Bible in ways that seem decidedly Protestant Fundamentalist.
The ambiance established by writer-director Alejandro Amenabar strongly suggests we'll soon be hearing unidentified cries and having sightings of uninvited guests. Or are they apparitions?
'The Others,' which might better have been called 'The Intruders,' plainly was green-lighted for production on the strength of 'The Sixth Sense's' success.
A child seeing what others can't - that sort of thing. And with a twist that isn't simply the saving grace but the story's whole reason for being.
But don't look for the contemporary cant of 'The Sixth Sense.'
'The Others' is a ghost story of a more traditional variety, a hybrid of Shirley Jackson's 'The Haunting of Hill House' (filmed well as 'The Haunting' in 1963 and unrecognizably badly in 1999) and Henry James' 'The Turn of the Screw' (done superbly as 'The Innocents' in 1961 and often under its original title).
Think, too, of 'The Uninvited' (1944) and any of several episodes of 'The Twilight Zone.'
Amenabar keeps nudging the supernatural components of his story toward each other, but he never succeeds in imposing the thematic harmony he's after.
They are, as even Grace seems to understand, mutually exclusive.
Amenabar works hard to ignite chills through understated effects such as candlelight, the persuasive fright in Bentley's eyes and the nicely blurred line between self-determination and insecurity in Kidman's efficient performance.
Give the guy a standing ovation for not burying his ideas in special effects and cheap thrills. He's to be applauded for restraint.
But sit down. He's not home free.
He protracts his film unnecessarily for something with an essentially simple, unamplified premise. His pacing is rather too deliberate for a story that doesn't grow many branches.
He gives us too much time to notice what he's concealing. If you've seen material such as this before, you won't be able to help anticipating revelations that Amenabar withholds.
I like where 'The Others' takes us, as well as its modest trappings in a summer of brainless, overblown blockbusters.
But I can't resist wishing it were spookier, tighter and deeper and that Kidman had managed to make Grace more accessible.
Ed Blank can be reached at (412) 854-5555 or firstname.lastname@example.org .