This, That and The Others
This week, a look at Nicole Kidman's new film The Others, and a quick round-up of various other bits and pieces I feel like inflicting on you.
Let us suppose you are a British character actor yearning to make it big Stateside. You have paid your dues in the RSC, or perhaps you have appeared in a BBC or ITV classic serial shown over a Bank Holiday Weekend. (Or you may just be a lovably violent ex-footballer with no real talent but a high profile.) How do you secure your big break into the cinema?
Well, you have two options open to you. If you are young and virile-looking enough you can trundle over to the Suits at the major studios while they assemble their latest pre-fab blockbuster and ask to play the villain. Here you will join an illustrious roll-call alongside Alan Rickman (Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, etc), Gary Oldman (Leon, etc), Dougray Scott (Mission Impossible 2), Jeremy Irons (Die Hard 3), Tim Roth (Planet of the Apes), and even that bloke off Poirot (Executive Decision). (In fact my spies tell me that so short are the studios of unfamiliar British villains that we will soon see Bruce Willis fighting Alan Bennett in Die Hard 4.)
On the other hand you may be knocking on a bit and/or still have some self-respect left, in which case you should wander over to the Historical and Comedy department and be prepared to play the butler or maid. Many others will have preceded you here, too - Sir John Gielgud (Arthur), Denholm Elliott (Trading Places), and George Cole (Mary Reilly) to name but a few. And now the stalwart writer and comedian Eric Sykes has joined their number following his appearance in Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenabar's highly engaging new film The Others.
The Channel Islands, 1945, and wealthy householder Grace (Nicole Kidman) is forced to recruit some new staff for her isolated, perpetually fog-shrouded mansion - the previous lot having mysteriously vanished. The new set are Mrs Mills (Fionnula Flanagan, who judging from the internet is best known for an interesting set of political beliefs and the fact she played Data's mum in Star Trek. Yes, really), Mr Tuttle (Eric Sykes) and the mute Lydia (Elaine Cassidy). Life in the mansion is complicated by the extreme photosensitivity of Grace's children Anne and Nicholas (Alakina Mann and James Bentley) - prolonged exposure to daylight will kill them. And it soon becomes apparent that there's more going on than first seems to be the case - footsteps echo from empty rooms, doors unlock themselves, and the children report seeing 'the others' - inexplicable strangers in the house...
This is a really solid piece of work, a haunted house story in classic style - albeit with the obligatory twist ending. It's quite extraordinarily creepy and atmospheric, almost always shrouded in mist or lit only by candles. As a ghost story, the key question must be - is it frightening? And I'd answer with a firm yes; in addition to the generally nervy atmosphere there are lots of genuinely scary moments. It's hugely refreshing to see that such a straightforward, non-ironic movie can still make a modern audience jump out of their seats in shock - even amongst the usual Saturday matinee crowd of urchins, guttersnipes and delinquents there was a lot of nervous giggling, fluttering and clenching, and even a few screams.
The success of this film is really down to two contributors - the first being Alejandro Amenabar. His script flawlessly captures the idiom of 1940s speech ('Cowardly custard!' etc), and his direction is knuckle-whiteningly effective. (He also manages the best lost-in-the-fog sequence since Kurosawa's Throne of Blood.) He even does the score rather well, keeping it low-key and wisely saving the shrieking Psycho strings for crucial moments. The other key element is Nicole Kidman's performance. While I'm not a great follower of hers, I've seen quite a few of her movies (even her debut in BMX Bandits) and I don't think she's ever been better than here. As the uptight, emotionally brittle Grace, she's quite convincing, and from the opening seconds you're entirely certain something's not quite right in the mansion.
Flanagan has the other major role and she's the most alarming screen nanny since Billie Whitelaw in The Omen. The kids are excellent too, none of your Haley Joel Osment doggy eyes and wispy voices here. Christopher Eccleston pops up briefly, and - to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan - while he doesn't actually do much, he does it very well. The same can be said for Eric Sykes and Keith Allen (who has a short but crucial cameo).
If I had to find fault with The Others, it'd be that the story meanders ever so slightly from time to time, allowing the tension to seep away. There isn't the big finish you might expect, either, and this gives the film an insubstantial, lightweight quality - highly involving while you're actually in the theatre, but not lingering much in the memory. There's always the possibility that one person's great horror film is anothers' bad comedy1, but I spent a very satisfying and pleasantly terrifying two hours in the company of The Others.
Any Other Business
It's out of my remit I know, so I'll keep this brief, but if you haven't seen Band of Brothers yet (the BBC transmission has just passed the halfway point), do give it your attention. As both pure drama and part documentary, it succeeds on almost every level: stunning direction, remarkable production values and some great performances (rather unfairly I'll single Damien Lewis' CO, Michael Cudlitz's squad sergeant and Shane Taylor's medic out as being particularly good). It's a reminder of what war is truly about - and manages to be respectful without needlessly glorifying the conflict. Like I said, check it out if you can.
No-one will ever watch the 1976 remake of King Kong, with its WTC-located climax, in the same way again. And what of Die Hard, Godzilla 1998, Fight the Future, Independence Day, and all the other other apocalyptic fantasies of recent years? Suddenly they seem a lot less innocent.
Well, what idiot wrote that? (Fight the Future got its UK terrestrial premiere the other night, and no-one seems at all bothered.) Well - ahem - it was me, actually, as the regular reader will remember. Ho hum - '24 Lies a Second - the column that hasn't a clue.'
Moving swiftly on, next week I hope to investigate Jet Li's new ass-whuppin' exercise Kiss of the Dragon, and in the process take a look at the history of the kung fu genre. Don't fail to miss it.