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THE OTHERS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Nicole Kidman, Fionnula Flanagan, Alakina Mann, James Bentley
Director:  Alejandro Amenabar
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Dimension (Buena Vista)
Features:  See Review
Length:  104 Minutes
Release Date:  May 14, 2002

“The only thing that moves here is the light…but it changes everything.”

Film ***1/2

If The Others seems a bit slow moving the first time you see it, it’s only because you think you have a handle on what’s happening, and you’re waiting for the conclusion rather than anticipating it.  It’s not a flaw in hindsight, because by the time the movie is over, you begin to realize that what you thought was significant was not so much, and vice versa.

A couple of years prior, The Sixth Sense surprised audiences around the world, and I have to say that The Others is at least every bit its equal in that capacity.  It’s an unusual story about a haunted house that relies more on atmosphere than special effects, and invokes the audience’s imagination rather than its knee-jerk reactions.  It boasts an impeccable lead performance by Nicole Kidman as the fragile mother trying to keep her sanity in an increasingly insane situation.  We’re never quite sure if what we’re looking at is the result of A) supernatural phenomena, B) the trickery of her bizarre new servants, or C) her own state of mind.  I suppose you could also add D) all of the above.  What would that make choice E)?

The movie was written and directed by Spanish wunderkind Alejandro Amenabar, a filmmaker I’ve admired for a while now.  You may have been covertly introduced to his work if you’ve seen the Cameron Crowe movie Vanilla Sky, which was an extremely faithful remake of his picture Open Your Eyes.  The Others is his third feature, and his first in English, and it shows the sense of style, pacing and maturity you’d expect from a seasoned veteran behind the camera…but Amenabar is shockingly only 28 years old.

Nicole Kidman is flawless as Grace, a mother of two living in a huge house in England around 1945.  Her husband went off to fight in the war, but there has been no word of him since.  As the picture opens, she is welcoming three new servants to the house, who are replacing the ones that vanished without a trace a short time prior, with no explanation and not even collecting their wages.

The new lead servant is Mrs. Mills (Flanagan), who does most of the speaking for the group.  She claims the three of them were servants in that house a long time ago before it belonged to Grace…they have returned because they were happy there.

Grace has some strange rules for the house, which for the most part, is kept extremely dark.  The reason is her children Anne (Mann) and Nicholas (Bentley) are both allergic to light…exposure to any luminescence much brighter than a simple candle could mean their deaths.  All around the house, curtains must be kept closed, and no door opened without the previous one being locked behind, in an effort to keep unwelcome light from accidentally spilling into a room.

The problem is that with the arrival of the new servants come strange occurrences.  Noises, voices, music…what does it all mean?  The only explanation offered is from young Anne, who claims to see visions of a young boy, his parents, and a frightening old woman.  We are told she is an imaginative and inventive child who likes to spin stories; is she making it all up?  If not, the house must be haunted, right?

A distinct alternate possibility is that servants are behind it all.  Another is that Grace herself might be unbalanced.  We are told by Anne that she “went mad once”…what does that mean?  No matter…it causes us to not only experience the situation through Grace’s eyes, but to keep a watchful eye on her as well.  Her behavior might just be a clue in unlocking the mystery.

The house has a great look to it, and the cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe is superb, as lighting is often sporadic and deliberately low.  In working with Amenabar, he helps create an atmosphere where the supernatural is possible, or where there is enough shadow to maintain a fakery as well.  By keeping both possibilities open, it leaves us wondering up until the very end.  And that very end is something no force on earth could make me reveal. 

See The Others.  Prepare to be rocked.

Video ****

There is a new textbook written for making a DVD transfer out of a sparsely lit film, and it is called The Others.  I can’t even imagine the work it took to get this disc to look so incredible, but the result is one of the best transfers I’ve seen this year.  It doesn’t matter how low the lights go, there is still an amazing amount of detail and surprisingly little grain (though a tiny amount is frankly unavoidable as contrast levels have to increase to compensate for less light).  Colors are superb in every scene, rich in natural looking tones that seem to correctly reflect either the light or absence of light at all times.  Check out the scene where Grace goes walking in the fog…fog is normally a compression nightmare, but here, the effect is clean, as are images disappearing and appearing in it.  This is a stunning technical achievement…highest marks.

Audio ***

The 5.1 audio is good, but not quite as impressive as I had hoped.  There is a great amount of dynamic range, but unfortunately, some of it comes from levels being too low during quiet scenes.  In the early going, some of the dialogue is faint and requires careful listening.  But you don’t want to reach for the volume knob too early or you’ll regret it later.  Certain sequences, as you might expect, make good use of the surround channels and subwoofer, but they aren’t as plentiful as you might expect.  Amenabar also composed the score for his movie, and it comes across with great clarity and range.  Apparently there is a DTS version of this soundtrack available in other regions…I’d definitely be interested in comparing the two.

Features ***

Don’t be fooled by the fact that this is a double disc set…the features, while decent, aren’t exactly numerous.  There is “A Look Inside” featurette, containing interviews with Amenabar, Kidman, producer Tom Cruise and others, a short visual effects piece (you may think the film had no visual effects, as I did, but it turns out they are very subtle), a short piece on a family dealing with Xeroderma Pigmentosum, the ailment the children in the film suffer from, an “intimate look” at Amenabar which is really just a short piece that watches him direct, a stills gallery, and a trailer.  Sorely missing is a commentary track with Amenabar, who speaks English quite well.

Summary:

The Others is a must see and a film that rewards patience…after a strong start, you may find it a little slow going, but by the ending, all will make sense, and the rhythm and pacing of the movie by Alejandro Amenabar will be both understood and appreciated.  This awesome looking DVD is the perfect way to experience it for the first time.