Were it not for the huge and surprising success of 1999's "The Sixth Sense", this horror-thriller would not have been conceived, written nor green-lighted. It's fair to say that because it's a rip-off. Yes, the characters are different; yes, the setting is different -- but the concept behind it is virtually identical.
Which is not to say that in this version writer-director Alejandro Amenabar, a Chilean filmmaker whose work hasn't reached these shores in any wide release before this, wasn't very clever and dramatic in adapting it to a new set of characters and circumstance. Taken by itself, this is a well crafted movie, sparked by the superbly skillful acting of its cast, including the children.
Grace (Nicole Kidman), a mother of two, lives with her children in a secluded island mansion off the coast of England during World War II awaiting the return of her husband from the battlefields. The children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), suffer from extreme photosensitivity demanding they live by nothing brighter than candlelight because of the grave consequences daylight could cause them. Consquently, the curtains are always closed in this somber, gothic environment.
Needing domestic help and a nanny, Grace runs an ad and, sooner than expected, a group of three domestics appear on her doorstep: Mrs. Mills (Fionulla Flanagan), Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes) and Lydia (Elaine Cassidy) a younger one who is mute. They seem agreeable and Grace hires them, explaining some of the seemingly strict house rules concerning locking and unlocking doors and use of the all important keys, all for the purpose of protecting the children.
Having once worked in this very mansion, the squad of domestics is quickly at work and in control of their duties. The fly in the ointment is little Anne, who believes she is seeing and hearing ghosts. Grace doesn't accept that there's any such thing and punishes her but she, too, starts hearing noises. First blaming the servants, then seeing things with her own eyes, like the mysterious playing of the forbidden piano. There's at least one ghost who isn't following her rules.
Grace is soon apologizing to her servants and her children for her accusations but not before realizing that the ad she intended to run for domestics never reached the post office nor the newspaper. The people working for her came of their own desire to return to the house they knew. A coincidence. Mrs. Mills is so convincing about it, Grace allays any suspicions she may have been harboring and accepts the explanation.
One day the curtains disappear, to Grace's frantic astonishment and fear for the safety of the children. Once she gets them covered and in the safety of a dark place again, she confronts the servants once more, only to be told by Mrs. Mills that the children might not be as sensitive to the light as Grace thinks. We see that Mills knows more than she is letting on. But Grace, oblivious to anything but stubbornness, sets out in a fog to get new curtains in town. On her way, she becomes disoriented by a sudden increase in fog, pauses and sees a figure. Charles, her husband (Christopher Eccleston) appears out of the mist, somewhat the worse for wear. She quickly embraces him and takes him back to the mansion where he reveals a... certain... strangeness.
Strangeness and otherworldliness is key to the events that follow in this mist and curtain shrouded, corridor darkened, gothic tale in a perfect setting for shivers and the not-unexpected surprise ending. While the pacing gets a little elongated at times, the acting never flags. Kidman proves once again that she's an actress of complete understanding and the skill to convey it. It's worth noting the spectrum of her range having just come off a similarly fine delivery in the musical, "Moulin Rouge". This is not just a pretty face, though one can easily become distracted by it.
Flanagan delivers a delicious all-knowingness to her portrayal which one hopes might bring deserved recognition of a career of fine acting for this estimable professional. Kudos go for the casting of the children who are solid in their individualities and age-appropriate engagement with the material. Alakina Mann's intelligent and unique way of expressing herself is captivating while little James Bentley, sporting an engaging enthusiasm behind his round ever-open eyes, is just right for the proceedings.
The visual delights of horror filmmaking are all extremely well realized by the low-key, modulated lighting of Spanish Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, displaying mastery of his medium in a setting and story that amply provide the opportunities.
Estimated cost: $17,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $96,000,000.
Rated S, for Shivery.