The moment when The Others begins to make sense arrives mid-way.
Grace (Nicole Kidman) moves in a thick fog; visibility is so low and the lay of the land so inscrutable that, for the audience, every change of angle on her seems like the violent intrusion of a different figure. Then, magically, another figure does indeed appear – Grace's husband, Charles (Christopher Eccleston), long assumed killed in war.
This magisterial sequence is worthy of the great, low-key horror-thrillers produced by Val Lewton in the '40s. It is a mysterious and disquieting event, one which does not auger well. Charles' attempted reintegration into the family unit merely increases the tensions evident at every level.
The Others is an understated, psychological fantasy in the vein of Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" (and the celebrated film adapted from it, Jack Clayton's The Innocents ). In a dark, cloistered mansion, Grace keeps her two children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), sheltered from the world. Grace's habits seem obsessive and compulsive: she cannot enter a room, for instance, without locking each door behind her.
The precarious tranquillity of this home is ruptured when three servants arrive at the door: Mrs Mills (Fionnula Flannagan), Mr Tuttle (Eric Sykes) and Lydia (Elaine Cassidy). With little tolerance for Grace's over-cultivated neuroses, this trio soon show signs of harbouring a darker agenda.
The Others is impossible to discuss in detail without spoilers, since its force and meaning depend utterly on a mind-boggling set of plot revelations in its second half. Until then, much of the movie seems strained, vague, even clumsy: the Victorian atmosphere and manners, Grace's jitteriness, and odd details such as the children's "photo-sensitive" relation to light.
A review can only urge viewers to hang in with what turns out to be a quite remarkable achievement. More successfully and bravely than The Sixth Sense (1999), The Others ventures further than mere narrative surprise in order to probe the disturbing undercurrents of family life and social history.
Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenábar (Thesis , Open Your Eyes  – the latter woefully remade by Cameron Crowe as Vanilla Sky ) is, in his '20s, an extraordinary talent. For his English-language debut, he has wisely chosen a small-scale subject that he can control in every detail. Javier Aguirresarobe's cinematography and Benjamin Fernandez's design are outstanding. Kidman skilfully rises to the challenge of what is a technically demanding role.
Amenábar, like his national compatriot Bigas Luna (Anguish, 1987), brings a thoroughly experimental edge to a formulaic genre. The film derives its considerable poetic power from a rigorous concentration on the most fundamental elements of cinema: light and dark, sound and silence, the seen and the unseen.
Suspense is, for him, not a matter of things that go bump in the night but a fundamental condition of our uncertain identities.
MORE Amenábar: The Sea Inside
MORE Latin American horror: The Devil's Backbone
© Adrian Martin November 2001