"The Others" is about two-thirds of the most wonderful ghost story ever, and I'm happy to give it high marks for that, even though it starts teetering halfway through and ends by trying to catch up with us in the audience.
It is 1945 on the island of Jersey in the English Channel. We are in a great mansion on the island, where Grace (Nicole Kidman), a fiercely religious Catholic and a determinedly protective mother of her two children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley) lives in wait for the return of her husband from the war. The mansion is dark, because the children have a rare allergy to sunlight and cannot take anything stronger than a candle or two. The curtains are thick in every room, and must be kept drawn at all times. All doors must be kept locked, and no door may be opened until the previous one is closed.
One foggy morning a group of three people shows up at the house. They are applying for positions in service, and seem very understanding of the requirements. Mrs. Mills (Fiannula Flanagan) is to be the housekeeper, Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes) the gardener, and a mute young woman will be their helper.
Kidman, who as an actress is something of an ice queen, uses that trait magnificently here. Her obsessive protection of the children, her reliance on Catholic dogma for answers to all questions, is wonderfully powerful to watch. And the children (pale though incongruously made up with rosy lips) are thoughtful and unmannered actors also. Their scenes with Kidman and by themselves are the very best in the film, as writer-director Alejandro Amenábar gives them enough room to relax and let the events of the film come to them. This is the Spanish filmmaker's first film in English, though a remake of an earlier film is now being readied for release this fall as "Vanilla Sky."
And what are those events? There are mysterious voices in the house; someone plays the piano though no one is anywhere near the music room. Frightening things begin to happen. And the new servants seem to know more than we would expect about the house. This is the classic ghost story at work, and Amenábar directs it with great power. He has frightened us and made us jump at every noise.
But then the film begins to run out of steam. A new character appears and we begin to suspect the secret; and then Amenábar needlessly gives it all away with a scene that should never have been included in the film. From that moment on we can do nothing but wait for the film to find its ending and let us go.
A word about Fiannula Flanagan, playing the housekeeper. She is dressed not for 1945 but for service in a Victorian household, and she is the perfect foil for Kidman's coiffed and stylish look. We love her and want her to comfort us, as she does with the children here. It is a beautiful performance and might just be worthy of an Academy Award nomination.