Friday, October 3, 2014

Light Of My Life

Year: 2001
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Christopher Eccleston, Fionnula Flanagan
Run Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

The next installment in my "spend October watching horror movies I haven't actually seen" marathon is a film which I really should have caught up with long before now, 2001's The Others. As a big fan of The Sixth Sense it doesn't make sense (Is that a pun? I'll take it) why I've skimped out on this dark domestic ghost story for so long, but at long last that oversight has been rectified.

I've shone a light on it, so to speak.

Now make one thing clear up front. This is an artsy horror film with a foreign director starring Nicole Kidman acting her ass off in an ornate house. Much like last year's Stoker, this is not going to be first pick for your slumber party. Though it is a terrific piece of cinema, The Others is not keyed to the Halloween crowd looking for thrills and spills, instead focusing almost entirely on the drama of one woman who stands helpless as her rigidly structured life begins to fall apart during a ghostly visitation.

That one woman is Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman), a lonely mother occupying a handsome manor on the island of Jersey in the UK. Her husband (Christopher Eccleston) is off to war and her sickly children - Anne (Alakina Mann) and her younger brother Nicholas (James Bentley) - are her first priority. They are photosensitive, reacting with extreme pain to any strong light, necessitating the use of thick curtains over every window of the house.

In this self-imposed darkness, Grace rules with an iron fist, teaching her children stories from the Bible and managing the minutiae of their lives. When a trio of new servants arrives, led by the gregarious Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), Grace is grateful for the help, but when strange happenings (doors and curtains opening and closing by themselves, mysterious whispers) begin endangering the lives of her children, she grows suspicious of the peculiar strangers living in her house.

Who would want those curtains open anyway? It's a regular paradise in here.

As the visitations grow more and more intense, everything Grace so fervently believes is challenged, leading to a breakdown of Britney Spearsian proportions. As is so often the case, Kidman tears out the rafters with her performance, magnetizing what could have been a routine, dull story with strongly grounded in physical emotion. Grace's stubbornness prevents her from expressing emotion so her body does it for her, providing a range of subtle touches that guide the audience along on her journey.

The rest of the cast does a fine job (though Bentley is markedly superior to Mann, an impressive accomplishment at his age - and holy crap I think we might be the same age, I should step up my game), but Kidman is the ringmaster here, and the film rises and falls with her and her alone.

With the acting pretty much handled, Amenábar was free to explore other channels of expressing the film's mood, like his impressively slick control of the cinematography. Inside this stern, structured house, the camera moves with slinking fluidity using long, deliberate takes separated by doleful fades that really emphasize the plodding familiarity and slowness that permeates everyday life for the Stewart family.

As big a fan of homework as I am, it's not quite a quick-cut MTV affair.

For obvious reasons, light is very important to this film. Amenábar and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe harness every dollop of strength within them to rigidly structure the world's most permeable element into a tapestry of emotion and clarity like never before. They don't necessarily challenge the world and conventions of film lighting, but their precision in how they achieve their desired effect is almost unparalleled.

The camera, light, and exquisite sound design (always a must in any horror film) all reflect upon one thing - Grace's worldview. And it makes it that much more effective when her perceptions begin to change. I shan't say a word about the ending here, save to mention that [while it should feel like an exact replica of The Sixth Sense, it absolutely does not - thanks to the skillful craftsmanship of character and style that set the film in a wildly different thematic universe. Not a small accomplishment for what, under unskilled hands, could feel like a remarkably unabashed rip-off.]

It's true that the film could be scarier. It could be quicker paced and include more business with the "intruders." But that's not what The Others wants to be. It's a period drama with horror trappings, digging into the psyche of a deeply troubled woman and toying with her rigid perspective on the world. If that's not what you're looking for this Halloween, I don't blame you. But once Oscar season rolls around and you're ready for a heady dose of horror, don't look any further than this skillful flick.

TL;DR: The Others is more dramatic than scary, but provides a terrific watch with masterful cinematography and a gung ho performance from Nicole Kidman.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 852

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