The Big Picture: The Others (12)

Things that go bump in the light
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In the haunted-house movie The Others, Nicole Kidman plays a woman with skin so pale it looks like a medieval tomb, and there's not much more warmth coming off her person. This is someone, you feel, who needs to get out more, though the fog that rolls around her house suggests why she doesn't: it's touch and go whether you could find your way back through the pea-soupers blanketing the place.

If it's Dickens on the outside, it's Henry James on the inside, specifically, the creeping dread of The Turn of the Screw, with maybe just a pinch of last year's Hitchcock pastiche What Lies Beneath.

For Grace (Kidman) the worry is not so much what lies beneath as What Lurks Upstairs. Her house is a rambling old pile on Jersey, the year is 1945, and the atmosphere about as convivial as the hotel where Jack Nicholson was caretaker in The Shining. Grace longs for her husband (Christopher Eccleston), missing in action in France, and his absence has been playing havoc with her nerves. As if things weren't bad enough when the Nazis occupied the island, she's now hearing voices and footsteps in rooms that have been empty for years; doors open without a push, and a piano plays in the drawing room, which she locked just moments before.

From the outset, the writer-director Alejandro Amenábar makes us wonder just how loose this woman's hinges might be. Her two young children make solemn references to a time in the recent past when "Mummy went mad", and the meaning behind that bald phrase constitutes the heart of the story.

Amenábar has inverted a great Gothic tradition, turning fear of the dark into fear of the light. Grace's children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), suffer from photophobia, an abnormal sensitivity to light that requires all windows to be curtained, while anyone passing between rooms must shut one door before opening the next. It lends the gaslit interiors a museum-like stillness that is curiously disconcerting, and Javier Aguirresarobe's sinuous camerawork compounds the impression of a house watching over its occupants. With her clanking ring of keys and soppy-sternness, Kidman occasionally has the air not so much of a mother as of a jailer, and not an especially benign one at that. "My children sometimes have strange ideas," she tells the new housekeeper (Fionnula Flanagan), failing to consider the possibility that her severe religiosity may itself have nurtured some of those ideas. Nor does Grace see the contradiction in terrifying her children with the notion of purgatory and then scolding them for their nonsense about "ghosts".

Kidman makes this brittle, inconsistent woman very believable, and for the first hour The Others builds convincingly around her unease. Are her domestic staff all that they appear? Is the house playing host to a revenant, or is it just her nerves playing tricks? Now and then the film sneaks up and gives you a fright; I jumped once, as did the friend sitting next to me (though he later explained that this was because he forgot the mobile phone in his breast pocket was set on "vibrate").

Amenábar can even cast a leap-out-of-the-seat moment as a sly joke. When Anne informs her inquisitive brother that real ghosts generally come wrapped in white sheets and dragging chains, we think no more of it; later, Grace tremblingly enters a room where she has heard voices, only to find there furniture and a statue of the Virgin shrouded (ho ho) in white dustsheets. It's later echoed in a scene where Grace, fitting Anne for her First Communion dress, folds the veil over her daughter's face: "I look like a bride," the girl says, standing at the mirror, and an inexplicable chill runs through the line.

It's when the film ventures out of the house and into the crepuscular grounds that one feels a slackening in the tension. Amenábar up to this point has kept the audience a virtual prisoner inside the rooms, and the poised restraint of his style works a claustrophobic spell: we seem to be holding our breath for minutes at a time. To explain exactly what goes wrong would be to risk disclosing the film's major twist – a twist that I didn't see coming, by the way – but two objections can safely be entered. The first is to do with casting; it's difficult, for those raised on British comedy at least, to stay spooked when the house gardener is played by Eric Sykes. Every time he uttered some gnomic phrase, the kind that's meant to resound, memories of Hattie Jacques and Richard Wattis came unbidden to mind. The second is a feeling that the film doesn't amount to more than the sum of its parts. It is elegant, it is clever, but it is never quite as overwhelming as you'd like it to be. The denouement hints at the heartstopping force of Greek tragedy, yet Amenábar doesn't follow it through. A pity.

That isn't to say you should avoid this movie – far from it. There is considerable artistry here, in the design (the lighting and sound are both superb) and in the acting. Kidman may be its fragile, porcelain centre, but there is marvellous support from the two children, whose impudence is undercut by an aching sense of vulnerability; these are heroically uncute performances. The Others doesn't break much new ground, but it traverses the old ground with a confidence few other films have matched this year.