(director/writer: Alejandro Amenábar; cinematographer: Javier Aguirresarobe; cast: Nicole Kidman (Grace), Fionnula Flanagan (Mrs. Bertha Mills), Christopher Eccleston (Charles), Elaine Cassidy (Lydia), Eric Sykes (Mr. Tuttle), Alakina Mann (Anne), James Bentley (Nicholas), Renée Asherson (Old Lady); Runtime: 104; Dimension Films; 2001-USA/Spain)
“A worthwhile film despite its shortcomings.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A Gothic mom-in-distress thriller for those who might believe in ghosts or at least are open-minded, or for those who like a scary puzzler story to be grounded in those old-fashioned techniques of getting at the human emotions rather than being a computerized technical special-effects production of the supernatural. It most closely resembles the Henry James story “Turn of the Screw,” as that one was filmed by Jack Clayton and was called “The Innocents.” That film’s premise is also of a woman desperately trying to save the two children in her care from invisible invaders in their house.
The 29-year-old acclaimed Chilean-born, Spain-based director, Alejandro Amenábar (Open Your Eyes/Thesis), provides a surprise ending to this chiller, which the clever viewer might guess since there are enough clues laid down. That’s something “The Sixth Sense” did, but there it worked better because the story was more plausible and less artsy, so when the surprise ending resulted it seemed more satisfactory than in Amenábar’s film.
The dark and somber tone of Amenábar’s film lingers for too long to make it seem anything more than an atmospheric and stylish mumbo-jumbo scare film. It creeps along at a gruelingly slow pace, belaboring its point that ghosts can live among the living.
The film is set in 1945, just as WW11 ended, in a remote house on the isle of Jersey, in the English Channel. But time seems irrelevant, as it could be set at any time, though the story fits most readily into the Victorian period. The mansion is inhabited by a stern, bossy, high-strung, Bible fundamentalist Catholic mother, Grace (Nicole Kidman-looking like Grace Kelly in the 1940s), her two vulnerable children, Ann (Alakina) and Nicholas (Bentley), and three odd servants who mysteriously show up and offer their services when the other servants fled for no apparent reason not even bothering to collect their wages. The servants include: the head housekeeper, Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan- a noted Irish actress), the gardener, Mr. Tuttle (Sykes), and a young cleaning lady who is mute, Lydia (Cassidy). The house is not only creepy and filled with ghost sounds, but is enveloped in darkness because all the windows must be covered with thick curtains as the children are mysteriously allergic to the light and if exposed it could be fatal to them.
Grace is the household head because her husband Charles (Eccleston) has not returned from the war and has been reported as a MIA, though she still has some hope that he will return. In the house there is no telephone, no radio and no electricity. Also, “no door must be opened unless the one before is closed.” There are 50 doors, 15 keys, and enough dark corners and creaky floorboards to even scare a dead person. When those clichéd scary formula effects don’t work enough scares, the background music goes into a high crescendo to add more chills. Another scare tactic used is when the scene shifts outside and the house is covered in fog and surrounded by a dense woods.
There are strange things happening in the house: doors being opened mysteriously, an unattended piano playing sounds of both sobbing and screams, and curtains being mysteriously removed from the windows. The question becomes are the new servants to blame? Or, as the inquisitive Ann claims, are there ghosts in the house?
It’s a scary movie because it takes on a number of different themes; such as, madness, ghosts haunting a house, religious dogma, sexual repressions, and hysteria. Nicole Kidman is quite adept to pull off those hyper moods that leave her as an overbearing mother who feels trapped in her own house and a vulnerable single mom who doesn’t know what to believe except what she learned while growing up from the Bible.
The film was heading in the right direction until the surprise ending left me less pleased. The striking performance by Ms. Kidman, who carries this pic and conveys the feeling of loneliness her part calls for, makes it a worthwhile film despite its shortcomings.
REVIEWED ON 9/25/2001 GRADE: C +