Closing the Curtains
The Others begins with a horrific scream. A really gruesome, creep-you-out scream, issuing from Grace (Nicole Kidman), as she awakens from a nightmare. With the camera close on her white-white face, she gasps for breath, then composes herself. Fervently Catholic and genteelly stoic, Grace rises to confront her day. She’s had nightmares before.
During the final days of World War II, Grace is living in a huge mansion on the dreary Isle of Jersey, a place picked out by her husband Charles (Christopher Eccleston), a couple of years ago, just before he left for the front. Though chances are slim to none, Grace holds out hope that he will return, partly in reaction to the dire turns her life has suddenly taken: not only have her servants mysteriously “vanished into thin air,” but a strange malady has made her children suddenly deathly allergic to sunlight. She now must keep the curtains drawn at all times, and to ensure that no crack of light slips in accidentally, she carries with her a clinking big ring of keys and locks every door behind her before she moves on to another room.
It’s no surprise that the kids—Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley)—are looking pasty, even cadaverous. Still, they hardly alarm the new crew of servants who arrive unexpectedly to apply for the newly vacant positions. Stern housekeeper Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), literally mute maid Lydia (Elaine Cassidy), and crinkly yard man Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes) show up on the doorstep, just on the chance there may be work at the house, where, they say, they worked a long time ago. Seeing Grace’s distress, Mrs. Mills reassures her that they will soon have the place in order, the dead branches and dusty attic rooms all cleaned up.
Written, directed, and scored by the young Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar, The Others explores the evolving relationship between Grace and the servants, especially Mrs. Mills, as this mirrors Grace’s changing perception of herself, in the world. Full of self-doubts but determined to stick to her faith and above all, protect her children, Grace struggles to maintain her respectable household and her sanity. Actually, the house—foreboding, massive, and creaky, not to mention very dark—is an apt metaphor for Grace’s changing sensibility and self-image. While she feels trapped within and by it, she also feels connected to it, unable to leave, partly because her children are stuck inside, but also because she’s so used to her solitude that she’s becoming vaguely afraid to venture outside.
The film’s concentrated focus on Grace’s internal struggle means that Kidman is on screen during much of the film, and she makes an exemplary neo-gothic heroine, her face drained of color and her posture achingly proper, perhaps especially when some unseen scary thing is coming up behind her. And there are unseen scary things in the house. Throughout The Others, what you don’t see is more dreadful than what you do. Grace’s devotion to her kids is admirable, of course, but the film is as much about the oppressiveness and costs of being a mother, as it is about her “good” maternal love. Within the film’s architecture, Anne and Nicholas are mostly extensions of Grace’s troubled psyche. And this makes their scary paleness even more pronounced. In an effort to please their mother and avoid the effects of her migraine headaches, Anne and Nicholas work hard at their school lessons, memorize Bible passages, and stay as quiet as possible. Most of the time, they appear to be eerily serene, whispering to one another about mummy’s recent “breakdown” (to which they allude in only the vaguest terms), or fretting about the “intruders” who come to their bedroom at night. In particular, Anne describes and then sketches a boy named Viktor, whom no one else can see. Like many older sisters, she insists on frightening while also looking out for her brother, in this case, by detailing the differences between ghosts who “wear sheets and rattle chains” and those who are less aggressive, like Viktor. Nicholas is skeptical, but willing to believe her, as he can come up with no other explanation for the noises in the house.
The kids’ lives apart from Grace, even in their confinement, make them seem like little strangers, and Grace’s increasing fearfulness and withdrawal only exacerbate the situation. Kidman—with the help of fabulous shadows and gently probing close-ups—conveys Grace’s developing brittleness while making you sympathize with her. Amenabar’s elegant score—mostly comprised of stark, single notes—raises the emotional ante while making your imagination do most of the work. Grace’s nervousness around the servants, who are so obviously “other,” by job definition and by entrenched class system, is especially acute and well-drawn. Mrs. Mills hovers in the hallways, quietly observing and judging, and Grace begins to resent and depend on her simultaneously. Despite her stiff-upper-lippish demeanor and continued attempts to get the servants on her “side,” in taking care of the children and maintaining the house, Grace can’t help but feel her grasp on her environment is slipping away. Her loss shapes the film’s gradual narrative movement, away from some material surface reality, into some more substantive and much more alarming surreality, beyond what’s visible.
There’s good reason for Grace to feel this loss, as far as we can see, which frankly, isn’t so far. Given the premise—that the house must remain dark at all times—The Others has a built-in ghastliness, which it deploys to great effect. As Grace walks from room to room, her sensible shoes clacking on the hardwood floors, the camera follows or anticipates where she’s headed, but can never show explicitly what’s around her. Your vision is thus as limited as hers, and the film sucks you up inside her emotional fraying, without you being quite aware that it’s happening. This isn’t to say that the movie’s structure is perfect—early on, you start to imagine where it might be headed, as particularly odd events occur, but it’s never so annoying as the film to which it’s being compared, the overrated Sixth Sense. At 29, Amenabar already has established himself as a filmmaker possessed of unusual subtlety and sensitivity. As in his previous work, here the fragmented narrative forces your participation in its unfolding.
And so, as it becomes clear that “others” are not only external threats, but also coming from within, you are also implicated, you are part of this fabric of relations and fears. Though Grace is intent on “closing the curtains,” she can’t keep the light out (so, yes, the overriding metaphor is a little obvious). And her need to see mirrors yours. As she forces herself to investigate her own home, discovering its history as well as her own suppressed memories, she also comes to understand her own complexities, her beliefs, and her relationships.
There is, of course and unfortunately, an evolving context in which to read The Others, having to do with its production history and current promotional apparatus. Kidman’s starring role has something to do with her ex-husband (official as of 8 August: can you bear the tension?!) Tom Cruise’s production of the film (along with his long time professional partner, Jane Wagner), and Cruise’s complicated relationship with Kidman and Amenabar extends to his appearance in the upcoming Vanilla Sky, the U.S. remake of Amenabar’s previous, Spanish film, Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes), which starred the then unknown Penelope Cruz, who is also starring in the remake and now reportedly living in new boyfriend Tom’s LA mansion. Oh, the tangled webs!
The drama came to a (non-)head recently, at the 7 August premiere of the film, where ex-“power couple” Cruise and Kidman both made appearances, separately. I can’t tell you how many times in the past eight hours I’ve seen the clip of the tensely smiling Mr. Show Me the Money asserting his “professional” obligation to support the film. In a weird, remote, like-you’re-watching-a-movie kind of way, the taut smiles and awkward bodies can make you feel badly for all of them. And all right, while all this gossipy stuff has nothing to do with the movie, there’s an uncomfortable resonance in the relentless sense of otherness that Hollywood breeds, perhaps especially between those far-off “stars” and those human “fans” who are trained to sympathize and identify with their idols. How much more “other” can you be than to be a movie star or her fan?