- The Washington Times - Friday, August 10, 2001

"The Others" becomes more evocative and poetically haunting as a title when the movie is over. While this haunted-house allegory is unfolding, you're never quite sure who the others might be — or where they're lurking.

For one thing, only a handful of characters appear. The credits actually stir more graphic apprehension than the body of the film because an eerie series of drawings seems to portend deranged and bloodcurdling crimes.

The criminal revelations that writer-director Alejandro Amenabar has tucked up his sleeves don't need to be confirmed all that explicitly once his small cast of characters can be observed in isolation, cooped up in the shadowy interiors or around the fog-saturated grounds of a secluded country estate, ostensibly located on the Channel Island of Jersey, shortly after the German occupation ended in 1945.

The island's vulnerability to capture five years earlier is not re-enacted or given a decisive significance. A ghost from the war does return in one episode, but for the most part, the finite year helps Mr. Amenabar define his exercise in suspense and mystification stylistically rather than historically or politically.

He prefers to spook us in an environment that's closer to the settings and fear mechanisms of the Val Lewton horror melodramas of the early 1940s or the original version of "The Haunting," directed by Lewton associate Robert Wise in 1963, before special effects, especially gruesome special effects, got such an upper hand that ghosts, ghouls and shape shifters could become discernible to an overwhelming and disillusioning fault.

Witness the lamentably literal-minded 1999 remake of "The Haunting," which might have served as a textbook of avoidance for Mr. Amenabar.

Echoes of Jack Clayton's elegant and emotionally wrenching "The Innocents," a 1961 version of Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw," are deliberate, heightened in the new film by identifying the jumpy and disaster-prone governess of the earlier works as a mother whose overprotective tendencies might conceal something pathological. Named Grace, she is portrayed with a blend of harshness and poignancy by Nicole Kidman that seem especially affecting now, when we're keenly aware of marital estrangement and abandonment as setbacks in Miss Kidman's personal life.

As a matter of fact, the movie was made under the auspices of Tom Cruise's production company while the actors were still a couple.

Grace is approached within her lonely sanctuary by a trio of servants whose leader is a housekeeper named Mrs. Mills, played by the redoubtable and seemingly earthbound Fionnula Flanagan.

The arrivals are aware that the previous skeletal staff has departed, leaving Grace alone with her two children, Alakina Mann as Anne, about 11 or 12, and James Bentley as Nicholas, a few years younger. Anne is the tease and provocateur in this set of siblings, both of whom recall the preternatural cleverness and pathos of Martin Stephens as the doomed Miles in "The Innocents."

Mrs. Mills claims something of a homecoming: She and her two companions, Eric Sykes as a wizened handyman named Tuttle and Elaine Cassidy as a mute housemaid named Lydia, resided at the estate in years gone by.

Although grateful for the assistance, Grace looms as a potentially troublesome, even hysterical, mistress. Although a political shadow has lifted, the curtains must remain drawn during most of the day because Anne and Nicholas suffer from a light-sensitive allergy that makes direct sunlight blister their skin.

Grace insists on elaborate precautions to assure that each room they enter will be suitably darkened — precautions that lend themselves to disobedience and sabotage.

Grace has reason to suspect that someone is playing cruel pranks designed to mock her security system and expose the children to danger. There's a lot of thumping from upstairs floors. A piano room seems especially treacherous, and in one set-piece sequence, the doors play creaky cat-and-mouse with Grace, whose apprehension peaks when a door presumes to slam in her face.

The tight-wire daring in Mr. Amenabar's exceptionally restrained and cerebral spook show is that he doesn't leave himself much margin for error.

The setting is impressively claustrophobic and menacing, calculated to hem in the characters and keep the audience in handsomely modulated states of darkness, rendered with a superlative sense of variation by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe.

Even the exteriors create an ironically confining impression because figures are prone to vanish in the fog, and we're not quite sure what to make of freedom of movement on these grounds.

For example, something seems unreal about the relative ease with which Anne and Nicholas move when they climb out a bedroom window at night, tiptoe along a ledge and alight with a kind of fairy weightlessness on the ground while playing truant.

Not too many distractions can enter and leave the playing area of "The Others." Sound effects enjoy more free-floating flexibility than the actors, beginning with a nightmarish scream in the distance and extending to mutterings that include a very audible but inexplicable "She's here."

Who is she? To borrow another phrase that pops out of the system of illusion, phenomena are "not at rest" in this setting.

Anne is especially good at jumping on a whispered command that is aimed at young Nicholas but may have a more direct bearing on the audience: "Stop breathing so hard."

At about the halfway point, Mrs. Mills and Tuttle are seen to be conspiring on an agenda that is certainly suspicious.

It's a given that some clues and apprehensions are intended to mislead us, but Mr. Amenabar keeps many of his deceptions more or less in plain sight.

Fortunately, the performances of the four principals combine with a consistent look and mood. "The Others" invites us into a realm where it's not clear how the living and the dead may be mingling, diverging or overlapping. Mr. Amenabar retains the privilege of keeping the precise nature of his kicker out of sight.

I think he's so adept that it will be intriguing to revisit "The Others" even after you have found out what's coming.

That's another way of saying "The Others" may prove to be a new classic of its harrowing kind.

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