Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others opens in darkness, with a lulling, disembodied voice addressing the audience as children gathered for a scary tale: "Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Then let’s begin." The credits roll over candlelit pen and ink illustrations from a children’s book, pictures that become more disturbing as the sequence continues. The final illustration – an enormous country mansion – dissolves into a shot of the house, and then the reverie is shredded with an off-kilter closeup of a terrified, screaming Nicole Kidman. It’s a delightful shock: Amenabar holds the audience by the hand, whispering reassuringly just before he kicks us off a cliff.
Kidman plays Grace, the high strung mother of two children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley). They are allergic to light, so much so that exposure to even the muted, fog-enshrouded sun of the Channel Islands would suffocate them in minutes. She enforces strict rules for their protection: when entering a room, one must lock the door immediately and all windows must remain curtained at all times. Though the story begins in 1945, the house has no electricity. Grace suffers from debilitating migraines and insists on absolute silence.
Grace’s husband Charles has been missing for years, a soldier yet to return from the war. She and the children are isolated in the old house, Anne preparing for her first communion and taking enormous delight in terrifying her brother with stories of a little boy named Victor who she says visits her at night. Grace is a shrill, nightmare vision of British rigidity, her repression nearly absolute. She schools her children with Biblical tales of self-sacrifice–she tells them at one point to close their eyes and imagine Hell, "pain enduring for Eternity"–and their slightest infractions are punished for days.
The story begins with the arrival of three new servants a week after the entire household staff fled in the night. Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), Tuttle (Eric Sykes) and Lydia (Elaine Cassidy) had served there under previous owners, and settle in to this troubled household as comfortably as they can. Mrs. Mills is a compassionate, grandmotherly nanny who takes the children’s fears seriously. Within hours, she’s Anne’s confidante. Tuttle keeps to himself in the garden while mute Lydia looks perpetually frightened, head bowed and expecting punishment.
It becomes clear early on that Anne isn’t just tormenting her brother–there really is something in the house, and it begins to assert itself. Amenabar has created such an evocative situation that each character in turn seems to be somehow responsible: the stern mother (who "went mad one day," though it’s not clear what happened), the cruel older sister, the mysterious servants, the apparitions that may or may not exist. He winds the tension up with the simplest devices–voices chattering from behind a locked door, piano music wafting from a distant room, curtains left open when they should be drawn–and the biggest thrills are unexpected precisely because they’re so mundane.
Without Nicole Kidman, The Others would be just a cannily plotted, confidently told ghost story, good for an enjoyable scare and not much more. Her performance cuts deeper than that, though, and makes the film genuinely disturbing. She communicates as much with her stiff posture and hectoring tone as with dialogue, and those few moments where she loses control are overpowering. (Amenabar opens the film with her scream to establish from the start her potential to erupt.) Grace has sublimated her desperate loneliness into a fanatical devotion to her children; she’s protective (her fierce tirade when she discovers a life-threatening open door explains why the first servants probably left) but only really affectionate when they sleep. She lives for them but treats them less like a mother than the headmaster of a boarding school, at least in part because she fears them. Anne bristles with resentment, challenging her at every turn, and Nicholas–cadaverous with his pallor and wounded expression–has a knack for asking questions she can’t answer. Kidman makes Grace’s discomfort palpable, her need to deny the obvious evidence that the house is haunted as much a function of her own severity as a reaction to her mingled love and fear of her weird brood. Her performance resonates long after the film’s over, turning Amenabar’s simple genre piece into a suggestive fairy tale meditation on mothers and their children.