There’s a slightly chill, studied quality to Nicole Kidman’s screen presence that invites admiration rather than affection — an effect quite the reverse of that associated with her ex-spouse. But as exec producer of “The Others,” Tom Cruise has handed Kidman the most generous divorce settlement any working-thesp wife could ask for. “The Others” is a luxuriously old-fashioned star vehicle custom-fit to its topliner’s strengths, which come across to sensational effect. Drawing on two forgotten 1940s subgenres — the woman-in-jeopardy U.S. noir and the British Gothic romance — first English-language feature by Chilean-born hyphenate Alejandro Amenabar is a delicious goose-pimpler that could become the late summer’s sleeper.
Only major obstacle to that prospect is a vaguely literary, costume-drama sheen auds may assume signals Merchant-Ivory terrain. More apt comparison would be last year’s surprise smash “What Lies Beneath,” which similarly let a skillful, seldom fully tapped actress electrify retro-thriller mechanics with her own neurotic ambiguity. “The Others” may strike a more rarefied chord, but grownups eager for suspense sans explosions should find rewards here.
Genteel yet macabre tenor is established in a neat opening-credit seg that sets archaic “penny dreadful” illustrations against the clipped tones of Kidman reading a not-so-restful children’s bedtime story. A title pegs the time and place — post-armistice 1945, remote Jersey Island off England’s southern coast — as three working-class transients knock on an imposing rural manse’s front door.
They’re greeted by Grace (Kidman), an astringent young mother living alone with two children. Her husband was killed in the war and the last batch of servants disappeared a week earlier. How fortunate, then, that these uninvited visitors — dithering old gardener Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes), cheerful housekeeper Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan) and mute young cook Lydia (Elaine Cassidy) — not only came looking for domestic work, but once were employed at this very site.
Hired on the spot, the servants soon glean why their immediate predecessors left. Grace is a terse, high-strung mistress, exacting in her demands. Claiming her children have a rare allergy to sunlight, she requires drapes be drawn all the time, and each door passed through must be left locked. The prepubescent kids are shut in cavernous, barely furnished rooms with exposed candle flames for hours on end. Lack of telephone or radio access renders the prison-like isolation queasily complete.
Grace’s overprotectiveness has left kindergarten-aged Nicholas (James Bentley) a clinging fraidy-cat, while elder sis Anne (Alakina Mann) is beginning to rebel against this severe regime.
Grace at first blames the new help when a series of minor poltergeist-style disturbances — doors left open, strange noises — flout her strictly enforced rules. The servants are incredulous, though, so she refocuses rage on Anne, particularly since latter insists a family of ghosts only she can see are the true culprits.
These clankings and creakings go on, however, until it’s clear neither tots nor menials can be held responsible. As Grace graduates from anger to panic, the children disturbingly hint that “Mommy went mad” at least once before. Then again, morbid 100-year-old prints discovered in the attic suggest the house may be haunted.
Grace decides enough is enough and leaves for a nearby village to get help. She gets lost in a fog-engulfed forest, however, and discovers her not-so-dead husband (Christopher Eccleston) wandering about disoriented in his tattered military duds. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we learn the new servants aren’t nearly as innocent as they seemed.
Catholic mysticism, the supernatural, real-world crime and otherworldly punishment all figure in a rapidly spiraling suspense arc. En route, Amenabar tips his hat to any number of wizened literary spook-a-thons, from “Jane Eyre” and “Turn of the Screw” to Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” plus the stage/screen incarnations of “Gaslight,” “Night Must Fall” and “Journey’s End.”
Given such moth-balled reference points, not to mention the onscreen proliferation of gloomy, old-school, Gothic trappings — rendered in funereal gray-to-black elegance by lenser Javier Aguirresarobe, production designer Benjamin Fernandez and costumer Sonia Grande — it’s amazing how much spine-tingling life Amenabar manages to pump into his willfully retro package.
Helmer’s control is masterful, creating many memorably creepy set pieces. If his epic buildup — one could apply that term to nearly the entire script — makes some denouement disappointment inevitable, Amenabar still contrives a wrap that’s duly haunting on several levels.
His terrific cast finetunes every ambiguous nuance. Flanagan and Sykes imbue their stock character types with just the right degree of off-kilter, near-satirical exaggeration, while juve newcomers Bentley and Mann are startlingly good.
But the show belongs to Kidman, and snugly tailored as it is, she’s surpassingly fine. Channeling both emotional transparency and another era’s larger-than-life diva glamour, her Grace is pretty, pallid, fragile and sharp-edged as a porcelain doll head. We’re never quite certain whether to fear her, or fear for her. Like great silver-screen stars of yore, Kidman does more than act here: She fascinates, holding camera and viewers spellbound.
All tech and design aspects are first-rate. Typifying pic’s canny restraint is the score, composed by Amenabar himself — a gorgeous chamber affair that nonetheless seldom intrudes upon long patches of eerie quiet. Though filmed in Spain, where Amenabar has mostly worked, results are Anglophilic through and through.
Running time noted does not include final credit crawl, missing from print previewed.