Set in 1945 somewhere off the North coast of England, Nicole Kidman is Grace, a devoutly Christian mother and wife who lives in an isolated mansion with her two children (played by Alakina Mann and James Bentley), who are apparently very light-sensitive. Her husband, meanwhile is off fighting in the war and has been gone quite a while, possibly even dead. Their servants walked off the job some time back and don’t seem to be returning. Into their lives come three new servants played by Fionnula Flanagan, Eric Sykes, and mute Elaine Cassidy. Grace becomes concerned after a while that the servants aren’t heeding her rules properly, which include never opening the curtains, and always closing the door behind you before opening another. These are very important, as they pertain to the children’s health and safety. Meanwhile, Grace is also starting to worry about the kids’ tales of ghostly presences in the house, particularly from wilful daughter Anne (Mann). However, she slowly starts to wonder if the kids might be telling the truth.
Reminiscent of films like “The Innocents”, “The Sixth Sense”, and the Bette Davis flick from Hammer films “The Nanny”, this 2001 film from writer-director Alejandro Amenabar (“The Sea Inside”, “Vanilla Sky”) works best if you don’t go in expecting a horror film. I wouldn’t call it a pure horror film, as that would set people up for disappointment. Yes, the foggy moors, old mansion and ghostly trappings do lead one to think straight-up Gothic horror, but for me, it’s a tad too drama-oriented to be labelled solely as horror. That slow-paced mystery/drama approach ultimately stops it from being genuinely tense and scary, which may or may not be that much of an issue for you. For me, it’s frustratingly just short of being a complete success. Poor child performances (by an amateurish and irritatingly wet James Bentley in particular), and a pretty agonising pace wore on my nerves just a tad too much.
It’s such a shame, because this thing looks absolutely bloody amazing, thanks largely to the expert cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe (“The Road”, “Blue Jasmine”, the remake of “Poltergeist”), with especially nice use of low-angles at times. Visually, it’s pretty much my kind of thing. The director himself is responsible for the excellent music score, classic chiller music score if ever I’ve heard one. So that works, too. Although not scary, it’s at the very least atmospheric in the best tradition of 50s and 60s (particularly British) horror. As far as I’m concerned, a horror film doesn’t have to be scary, although to be fair, I do believe the film tried and failed to be scary at times, ultimately leaving itself in the shadow of better films with similar genre trappings that were more willing to go the horror route, or were simply more successful in execution. Still, the atmosphere does help compensate to a certain degree for me, though your mileage may be different to mine.
A very, very tightly wound Nicole Kidman has one of her best roles and gives a rock-solid performance, probably among her most impressive. Although I find her a tad annoying with her slightly too cute Irish lilt, Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan and British comedy veteran Eric Sykes are also good in support. Flanagan has a certain way about her here that allows her to be potentially either genial or sinister, without ever overtly tipping her hat as to her character’s ultimate destination.
Atmospheric, stunningly photographed film with a fine lead performance by Nicole Kidman, and a classic, if predictable story. Ultimately, a couple of irritating child performances and a deathly slow pace bring it up just short. This could’ve been a winner, instead it’s just an OK horror-mystery.