A ghost story based post-war. A woman, Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) and her two children , Anne and Nicholas (Alakina Minn and James Bentley) live in a big ol’ creepy house in Jersey, which was totally occupied during the war. Husband (Christopher Eccleston – looking remarkably attractive with floppy blond hair) has gone off to fight in the War and has yet to return: the war has ended. Unspoken since this announcement at the start of the film is the assumption that he, like so many others, has died on the front line. Another rumor floating around the house is ‘the night mother went crazy’ which drives the narrative until it is explained at the end. We are initially aligned with the servants, Bertha (Fionnula Flannigan), Edmund Tuttle (Eric Sykes) and Lydia (Elaine Cassady) who show up at the house to take on new posts, as we are aligned through them it becomes rapidly clear that the mother has a few screws loose, which in this story is totally aligned with her religious fanaticism, culminating in punishing her daughter by reading scriptures aloud for three days straight. The film is truly interesting in its use of narrative alignment, I would argue that we flip between Bertha’s focus and Grace’s, perhaps even at points engaging with Anne – it is a very female-centric traditional ghost film, recalling traditions of the female Gothic and the dangers of the terrible (male) house.
Some highlights in the film was its engagement with the past, both a dialogue with Gothic history and an awareness of post-war Europe (we should not forget that the film was made in Spain, with American money, set in Jersey, so the global affect of the war truly comes through), and the genuinely show-stopping performance of Fionnula Flannigan – creepy yet sedate – and also, Alakina Mann as Anne, portraying both the ability to be an irritating little brat and a caring older sister. I may be the only one who says this, but I thought Nicole Kidman’s performance was a little flat.
Whilst I genuinely enjoyed the film, and found it to be engaging and a little different – I honestly was not expecting the twist at the end (SPOILER ALERT – I will be discussing it in detail later on). There are some problems with it.
The photo-sensitivity of the children is never really explained, nor is the fact that each door must be locked (I may have missed something – but I can’t seem to recall it ever being explained except for the fact it heightens the tension of each moment when a child screams by having to wait a few extra seconds while ‘Mummy’ frantically jingles her keys). Also, I did not understand the repeated moments where the children breathe rapidly and heavily, as if about to cry. I was expecting it to be some sort of sign of possession, but then it isn’t – it’s just the children and it is never explained. I feel like this happens several times in the film: something occurring that seems like it should be significant and then then film carries on without acknowledging it. It is these moments that really let the film down.
Furthermore, whilst I enjoy the female Gothic reference, I did feel as if there was no real climax – no large scare, no genuine cathartic moment that made me jump or shrink back in fear – it was almost too subtle. The major climax of the film, the discovery that they are dead, whilst an unexpected twist means the film changes tack from a horror film to a ‘something-else’ – if we are aligned with the malignant spirits of the house (cemented through the final chanting of “the house is ours”) – what is there to be wary of?
Something I also think is also an important question to ask is, how and to what end does the film use religion. It is, without a doubt, a negative thing in this film, culminating in the mother’s realization that for all of her religious fervor neither she, nor her husband or children appear to have ended up in heaven or hell. Religion seems to be absent by the end, and villainised through repeated skeptical looks at the increasingly frenetic Grace throughout the film. Honestly, I’m not sure if this is a ‘problem’ or not, but it is certainly a striking aspect of the film. Perhaps if we wanted to read into it, we could attribute the loss of faith to a distinctly post-war disillusionment, but since this is not made clear we run the risk of over-interpreting.
(On a side note, there is a fantastic moment at the dinner table where they discuss the father’s return, and Grace says that her husband will not go to Hell because he has fought on the side of the ”goodies’. It is dealt with incredibly well, and truly reflects some of the attitudes of the time, and sadly, perhaps even still.)
Finally, most significant in the film is the discussion of motherhood and wifeliness. This representation of maternity in Horror films is something I am particularly interested in. In fact, I very recently wrote an essay about maternity in the domestic horror film, of which The Others is definitely one. Maternity in the horror film can be difficult to read – many feminist critics have read the representation of mothers as always negative, the ‘good’ mother belonging to a Patriarchal discourse that ultimately forces the mother to sacrifice for the children and the good of the family, usually ending in her death or reinstating the repression of the mother figure and the ‘bad’ mother being monstrous and having to be tamed or killed. The Others is interesting because there are instances where the mother could fall into both categories -she remains a wife and mother, trapped in the patriarchal home even in death – but ultimately the major crux of the plot is the fact that she kills her children and herself – i.e. she is the monster of the film.
The ending is most interesting, does Grace reclaim her motherly role through killing her children? In some ways, the way the moment is undercut is quite fantastic, no one really knows what to do after she confesses all, if anything they remain closer together than before – I suppose they have no option. I will say that Grace remains a rather 2D character, and it is frustrating that her psyche is not explored more, if anything we are barred from understanding her through rumour and hearsay, and what we do see of her shows her to be neurotic and obsessed with a wider concept of religion that the film shows not to be true. On the whole, the film is not terribly kind to her.
Overall, I would give the film a 7.5/10. A pretty good concept, some flaws and a genuinely interesting twist.