One of the biggest human fears, both these days and in olden times, is feared widely because of how common it is. It isn’t something that can be squashed, chased away, hidden from or even ignored. It comes about through circumstance, unlucky events and the person allowing themselves to fall victim to it. This widespread fear is isolation – the fear of being completely alone and cut off from anything and anyone else. Even when with other people, the feeling of isolation can seep in and overcome anyone who is even a little remotely away from the world. The family in this film suffer from it, and the sad thing is that it can’t be solved so easily.
This film takes us to the Jersey Islands (in the UK for people who didn’t make the connection that “New” Jersey wasn’t the first one) in 1945, just after the end of the Second World War. Grace Stewart is a wife and mother living alone in a big mansion with her two children, waiting for her husband to return from France. The children have a severe case of photosensitivity, meaning they can’t bear any light much stronger than a lamp or else they’ll...well...die. That means that every room in the house has a thick set of curtains that must be drawn whenever one of the children enter, and the doors must be locked most of the time to keep the light contained. Grace certainly has her hands full since the servants in the house disappeared almost a week ago. Luckily for Grace, three servants who worked in the house for its last owners turn up to help out. Unluckily for all of them, it seems like the six of them aren’t alone in the house; the oldest daughter Anne claims to have seen a little boy and an old woman while there are the sounds of people moving through the house. The intruders are never seen, so Grace starts to suspect whoever it is may not be human...or even alive...
Nicole Kidman is our leading lady, playing Grace Stewart and of course she’s fantastic. Donning a perfect regional English accent that does not slip once, she leads the film through all its scenes and plays a very interesting character. We do see her as a mother but we see her more as a person first. As we get into the film we see how close Grace is to cracking, alone in the house with the children and the servants, and the supposed intruders nearly pushing her over the edge. Her intense religious faith makes her seem all the more unhinged as she clings to it while trying to deny that there are ghosts in her house. Her chemistry with the other actors is almost unbelievable with how well she bounces off all of them and of course for some moments in the film, you feel more scared of Grace than you do of the ghosts. Irish actress Fionnuala Flanagan plays Mrs Mills, the nanny and housekeeper and Grace’s only real confidant in the house. I haven’t seen her in any other films but she is quite interesting to watch in this, especially once the final act of the film rolls by. In some ways she acts as a better mother to the two children than Grace is.
Speaking of the children, the actress playing Anne is quite impressive. She’s only around eight or nine years old (obviously not now) but she delivers her lines and really gets across the character, bringing Grace and Anne’s rocky relationship to life. The actor playing Nicholas is a lot younger, around five or six maybe, but doesn’t bring the film down at all. He doesn’t have as much screen time or development as Anne but he does fine whenever he is on screen. Christopher Eccleston has a small role (but gets third billing in the credits, not even appearing until nearly an hour into the film) as Grace’s husband. When he appears in the film, it suddenly shakes up the dynamic as we are used to Grace, the children and the servants with the women being prominent so having an adult male authority figure changes things around a bit.
I can see that this film draws heavily from the Henry James novella “The Turn of the Screw” and you will see parallels between this film and another which I’ll be reviewing later on. In both cases we have an adult female responsible for two children having to deal with a supernatural event. Really though, the ghosts are just minor characters and the film is definitely more about the drama between the family and how the ghosts affect that. The film is much more subtle than something like Poltergeist with trees coming to life and furniture being thrown around. Here we rely more on the dark shadows in the house and all the noise. You definitely get a big sense of dread when you keep hearing all the noises when there doesn’t seem to be any actual source for them. This is upped considerably when Grace starts flatly denying that there even are intruders in the house. Another nice touch is the fog that surrounds the house, further giving the sense of being trapped inside and cut-off from the rest of the world. This is especially glaring when Grace tries to leave the house and gets lost in the fog.
The scene that really stands out to me comes when Anne has tried on her communion dress, covering her face with a veil. Grace enters the room again and sees her daughter playing, but then she sees an old woman’s hands coming out of the dress and that it’s an old woman’s face, but speaking with Anne’s voice. That scene where Grace nearly goes over the edge and attacks her is particularly frightening when one considers that Anne has no idea why her mother is attacking. Another one that sticks out is when Grace first realises that someone else is in the house; she hears a rumbling upstairs and angrily shouts up at the ceiling for the servant girl Lydia to calm down...only to look out the window and see that Lydia is in the garden with the other servants. The next part where Grace runs all over the landing with Anne telling her where they went is particularly suspenseful and perfectly acted by the younger actress. There’s a pretty creepy moment after this where Grace finds a photo album full of what appears to be sleeping people...only for Mrs Mills to point out that the people in the portraits are actually dead. Apparently the director is in one of those as well.
I’m going to drop two unexpected bits of information on you about this film. Firstly, it was made in Spain and directed by a Spanish man with a Spanish crew. It actually became the first film to win the Goya Award (Spain’s equivalent of the BAFTAs) for Best Spanish Film, and not have a word of Spanish spoken in it. The second bit of info is that Tom Cruise was a producer on this and his name only appears once in the opening credits. Funnily enough (if you have a morbid sense of humour, but who doesn’t these days?) his and Nicole’s divorce was finalised the week this film came out. As their final collaboration together, it holds up as one of Nicole Kidman’s standout roles and one of the more effective modern haunted house films. People who have seen this before will notice that I keep the ending and the final act a secret as knowing that would really spoil the fun of watching it the first time. And even if you are trapped in a haunted house on an island, as long as you have an internet connection I’m sure you’ll be just fine. Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.