Set on the isle of Jersey in the English Channel in 1945, "The Others" stars Nicole Kidman as Grace, a World War II widow who resides with her two children in a dark, dank Victorian mansion. The servants have all mysteriously disappeared but are almost immediately replaced by three strangers who just happen by, looking for work. While giving the grand tour, Grace emphasizes her peculiar house rules: All the drapes must be drawn whenever her children are in the vicinity, and, upon entering a room, one must close the door before opening another. Her reasoning becomes clear when she introduces Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), for they are photosensitive and will break out in life-threatening hives when exposed to light any stronger than candlelight.
It soon becomes clear, however, that Grace, her children and the servants aren't the only residents in the house. Anne swears she's met a boy named Victor who lives there with his parents and has encountered a blind witch with smelly breath. Grace punishes her for days, making her read incessantly out of the Bible, before she hears footsteps and voices herself and becomes convinced Anne hasn't just been telling ghost stories to scare her brother.
In the first couple of acts, Amenábar guarantees the audience doesn't know what to believe. In a brilliant scene a la "The Blair Witch Project," Anne and Nicholas have settled into bed for the night, but Victor insists on whipping the drapes open. Only Anne can see him, and Nicholas, cowering under the covers in terror, can't be sure his big sister isn't playing a cruel joke on him, mimicking a boy's voice and opening the drapes herself. Nor can the audience. Victor, if he is really there, is positioned just off camera, and one can't see Anne's face when he speaks, nor her body when he opens the curtains. On the other hand, Grace's sanity is continually called into question with references to a mysterious incident that Nicholas can't or won't remember and Grace denies. Therefore, when she sees an apparition herself, one can't be sure it isn't her unstable imagination. It also becomes apparent that her new servants may not have the best intentions. Are they trying to drive her and her children out of the house, in which, it turns out, they've worked before?
Though serving as the film's composer in addition to his writing and directing duties, Amenábar knows how to use silence, relying on creaking floorboards and panicked breathing rather than a swelling score, to create suspense. And his use of candles, which cast dark shadows on the shrouded corners, and locked doors, which block one's view from room to room, visually illustrates that the greatest terror is that which one can't see, that which one doesn't know.
Kidman, who gave a fearless, generous performance in one of the year's other most original works, "Moulin Rouge," proves equally adept here at the other end of the spectrum. Fearful and uptight, Kidman as Grace is an exposed, raw nerve on the verge of what--theatrical overprotectiveness? Crippling grief? Over-the-edge insanity? That the audience doesn't know is a testament to Kidman's arresting performance.
Peppered with dialogue about hell and its various realms (Grace scares her kids into behaving by describing their fiery fate if they're naughty) and debates about myth versus religion (Grace advises Anne not to believe in ghost stories, while Anne argues why, then, should she believe the stories in the Bible), "The Others" challenges all these notions with its uncertain ending and its implications. Starring Nicole Kidman, Fionnula Flanagan, Elaine Cassidy, Eric Sykes, Alakina Mann, James Bentley and Christopher Eccleston. Directed and written by Alejandro Amenábar. Produced by Fernando Bovaira, José Luis Cuerda and Sunmin Park. A Miramax release. Thriller. Not yet rated. Running time: 105 min