not in our stars, but in ourselves
In keeping with the recent trend of TV programming gods smiling on me, unlike most of the other gods (those jerks), today I stumbled upon The Others (2001). It is one of a very few horror movies that I really, genuinely love; take that as you will. I don’t love it because it’s a horror movie, however. It is an unusually perceptive insight into the nature of grief, particularly the grief in which we imprison ourselves.
N.B. I will try to refrain from including big spoilers in the following, but if you haven’t seen the movie and you’d like to, stop reading now. We’ll all be happier that way.
In as brief and sketchy terms as possible, the plot is this: on the island of Jersey, in 1945, Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) has been living alone with her two children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley). Grace is devoutly Catholic, and she clings desperately to her faith as life seems to go out of its way to test her. Anne and Nicholas, for example, were born with an extreme sensitivity to light. If they come into contact with natural light – even the diffuse, milky light from the foggy Jersey sky – they will break into painful hives and become covered with sores. Grace’s husband, Charles (Christopher Eccleston), has been fighting in the war for years. Grace is all alone. God, it seems, has abandoned her. One day, a trio of servants arrive at the house: Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan, everyone’s favorite creepy Irish mystic), Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes), and the mute Lydia (Elaine Cassidy). Grace is desperate enough for help around the house, and for companionship, that she permits them to stay despite the fact that they were merely wandering the island, hoping to find employment somewhere. So they say. It turns out that, long ago, they worked in that very house – before everyone moved away or died during an outbreak of tuberculosis.
Anne begins to see and hear “others” in the house. There is a little boy named Victor, and a strange old woman. This further strains her already difficult relationship with her mother, who treats Anne with a very harsh hand and coddles sensitive little Nicholas. Nevertheless, Grace herself begins to see things, and to hear piano music in the night, and goes into even more of a panic that “intruders” have made their way into her home. How? Who? And, Grace especially wants to know, why?
Now, I am a scaredy cat. (Or a cowardy-custard, as Anne calls Nicholas.) I admit this fully. The Others probably isn’t even really a horror film, especially not compared to other exemplars of the genre. It is suspenseful, creepy, full of twists and jumps – but the point, ultimately, isn’t to scare the audience. There are no chainsaw-wielding Texans, or demon possessions, or Manson Family-style home intruders. The setting is quite eerie: perpetual fog, an enormous old manor house, photo albums in the attic full of post-mortem portraits (and if you don’t know what those are, you have a strong stomach, and you’d like to know more, don’t say I never gave you anything), and invited, induced, wished-for darkness. However, as I say, that’s incidental – not integral.
The Others is really about grief and guilt. Grace is a Catholic, so these alliterative afflictions are neatly built into her faith, but writer/director Alejandro Amenábar isn’t just having a go at religion. He is studying a woman who is the architect of her own grief-induced psychosis. In many ways, the events unfolding in the film are her fault. She is beyond miserable because of choices she herself has made. She believes, because she must believe, that she will be rewarded with a change for the better if she keeps the faith. It’s too late, though. Whether she learns and understands what she did wrong, or not; whether she accepts her own failings, or not; she has mired herself in her own personal Hell. While The Others is a ghost story, there’s no need to look to the supernatural to see similar examples of this kind of thing. It’s like Norman says: we’re all in our private traps. Aren’t we just.
As a side note: I remember when this film came out, shortly after the sensational divorce of Kidman and Tom Cruise. Not that it’s wise to look to an actor’s filmography for insight into their personal life, but Kidman does rather seem to invite such inspection. Also, as an even cattier side note: it is awfully nice to see her at the height of her beauty, when her face could still move.