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'The Others'

Afraid of the light: 'The Others' is a puzzling ghost story played in the dark

Friday, August 10, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The fog-shrouded Victorian mansion on the Isle of Jersey that Grace (Nicole Kidman) and her two children call home is the very picture of gloom, isolation and silence. If your geography is a little rusty, Jersey is the largest of the Channel Islands, off the northwest coast of France.

 
    'The Others'

RATING: PG-13 for thematic elements and frightening moments.

STARRING: Nicole Kidman

DIRECTOR: Alejandro Amenabar

CRITIC'S CALL: 2 1/2 stars

 
 

It may be quiet but it's not tranquil in "The Others," a supernatural thriller opening today.

High-strung Grace fears her husband, who left to fight in the now-concluded World War II, is dead. Her daughter Anne and son Nicholas have a potentially fatal allergy to light. They can tolerate only the flicker of a candle or oil lantern, and Grace is obsessive about keeping the windows covered with heavy curtains and the doors locked so no light seeps into the hall or nearby rooms.

The sprawling place has no electricity, no radio and no phone. She confesses to her newly hired housekeeper (Fionnula Flanagan), "I'm beginning to feel totally cut off from the world." The housekeeper, an older man and a young, mute woman had arrived at the door just as Grace was looking to replace the servants who vanished overnight. The trio settle into the home, where life becomes curiouser and curiouser.

Anne, who has a hard time taking her Bible readings and religious lessons as literally as her devout mother, claims to be seeing intruders, including a young boy named Victor. Even Grace begins to hear mysterious noises -- heavy footsteps overhead, piano music pouring from an empty music room -- that suggest the house is haunted, although that conflicts with her strong Christian beliefs.

Something is seriously amiss in this house, and it's not just the shadows and fog, and it's up to us to figure out what's going on or simply wait until the end when (mostly) all is revealed. If you're like me, you may figure out one piece of the puzzle but not the entire thing.

Is Grace mad? Has Anne advanced from teasing her brother with tales of ghosts in white sheets and chains to spooking him with scary imaginary sightings? Are there apparitions lurking about? And what's the real deal with the household staff?

"The Others," filmed in Spain, was written and directed by Alejandro Amenabar, whose credits include "Open Your Eyes." That film starred Penelope Cruz, who also is in the American adaptation called "Vanilla Sky" with Kidman's former husband, Tom Cruise. He, in fact, is one of the executive producers of this movie.

It's an odd movie to have as the final film collaboration of the once golden couple. But the red-haired Aussie actress is very good at slipping into period clothing and hairstyles and frenzied emotion. Her blue eyes burn brightly in the dusky rooms.

As demonstrated in "Eyes Wide Shut," she also works well with child actors, and here she's dealing with two novices who were plucked from 5,000 who auditioned. As Anne, Alakina Mann must be a gutsy little girl who would rather endure her punishment than apologize for something she didn't do. Young James Bentley makes Nicholas a pale, perpetually frightened boy.

There is something especially delicious about a spine-tingling ghost or supernatural story. This doesn't quite fit that bill. It's engrossing in the way it draws you into its dimly illuminated rooms (I found myself thinking of the set decorators, whose work is barely visible much of the time) but its ultimate resolution leaves a couple of key questions unanswered. To spell them out would ruin the movie, so I'll leave them unstated.

"The Others" may aim for outright chills but achieves only periodic shivers -- including a doozy unfortunately spoiled by the preview. But on a hot summer day, that may be enough to draw you into the dark.

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