This Nicole Will Haunt Tom

After the awful Eyes Wide Shut and the pretentious, hysterical Moulin Rouge , Nicole Kidman redeems herself with The Others , looking as patrician and translucent (and wearing the same wonderfully straight, uncluttered hairstyle) as she did in her best film to date, To Die For . Tom Cruise co-produced The Others , and the forthcoming Hollywood premiere promises to deliver them both. What a media circus that ought to be. Meanwhile, the film stands on its own, and it’s very good indeed.

Meticulously directed by Chile’s Alejandro Amenábar, who also wrote the screenplay, The Others is that rarest kind of ghost story–sophisticated, stylish and suspenseful–with a mesmerizing performance by Ms. Kidman that provides a banquet of crow for her detractors to chew and gives her fans plenty to admire. There are inescapable elements of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and, unlike the overrated Sixth Sense , I dare you to guess the ending.

In a role unlike anything she’s tackled before, Ms. Kidman plays a cool, formal, humorless widow named Grace who moves with her two children to a gloomy, remote mansion on the windswept Isle of Jersey after her husband is reported missing in action in World War II. Grace is eccentric, highly annoyed by the slightest noise or invasion of privacy from the outside world, and her two children suffer from a rare nerve disorder that prevents any exposure to even the slightest ray of sunlight. The house, which seems to have a sinister personality of its own, has no electricity and no telephone, but it does have 15 keys and 50 doors, all of which must be locked at all times.

One day three mysterious servants arrive unannounced, with a suspicious knowledge of the house and its locked rooms. Who are they? Have they been here before? Meanwhile, the children, plunged in darkness and isolated from the world, begin to suspect that they are not alone. Grace overhears them in conversation with an invisible child only they can see. The sound of furniture being moved across the floors in the upstairs rooms echoes through the empty house. The grand piano begins to play by itself in the night, the curtains vanish from the windows, and the servants’ photos show up in the nearby cemetery. If the house is haunted, then why? And by whom?

This movie sends chills down your spine without the usual visual tricks and corny clichés, and it will keep you guessing all the time. The Others is a very odd film indeed, and one of the few I’ve ever seen from the ghosts’ point of view–but who are they, and what do they have to do with Grace? By the end, one set of ghosts becomes three, and only one of them is human. The Others is a horror movie in which the scary elements are all psychological, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sometimes jolt the senses.

The excellent cast of supernatural presences includes Christopher Eccleston, Fionnula Flanagan and Eric Sykes, but it is really Nicole Kidman who keeps the pulse racing. Bathed in half-light, moving from one ominous setting to the next in the frosty English air, she’s not only as lovely as ever–she’s even lovelier. The 1940’s June Allyson pageboy she wears appears to have been invented for her face, and the dark fashions of mourning accent her porcelain skin becomingly. She can also act. Tom Cruise, whose own movies get worse all the time, should be proud of producing this one and showcasing Ms. Kidman so stunningly. Was he a fool to let her go, or what?

Reading the Lobotomy Files

More creepy stuff permeates Session 9 , described by director Brad Anderson as “a contemporary tale of terror set in an abandoned insane asylum.” Mr. Anderson is the talented director of the charming, offbeat romantic comedy Next Stop, Wonderland . This is his first venture into chainsaw-massacre territory. Session 9 is more gruesome than coherent, but there’s no denying that Mr. Anderson is a man with a vivid imagination. The best thing about this thriller is the pulverizing tension Mr. Anderson builds out of practically nothing, and the really heart-stopping spookiness of the actual ruin in which the story was filmed.

Deserted and decomposing since 1985, the state mental hospital near Danvers, Mass., erected in 1871, is more frightening than any Hollywood set ever graced by Boris Karloff. Imagine the crumbling, gothic madhouse Frances Farmer described in her harrowing autobiography Will There Really Be a Morning? times 10, and you get the picture. It’s the kind of place you wouldn’t want to visit in broad daylight, much less in the dead of midnight. But to this existing Bedlam come five construction workers, assigned a contract to remove dangerous asbestos from the walls. In the week that follows, they find themselves lost in a labyrinth of hydrotherapy vats, isolation chambers where pre-frontal lobotomies were performed with ice picks, cells for the criminally insane and other daunting willies. The five-man crew has personal problems that are far from normal, but the characters are less interesting than the dark ruins that keep freaking them out. One by one, their minds seem to be affected by the grimness of their surroundings and, one by one, they meet with heinous disasters.

One hard-hat becomes so obsessed with the rampant patient abuse and medieval medical procedures detailed in the crumbling yellow case histories he discovers in a locked office that he starts to crack himself. The sessions of a particularly grim case involving demonic possession are detailed in a series of nine tape recordings. By the time he gets to Session 9, all hell breaks loose, hence the title.

A good cast that includes Scottish actor Peter Mullan, David Caruso, Paul Guilfoyle, Josh Lucas, Brendan Sexton III and Stephen Gevedon (who co-wrote the screenplay with director Anderson) works hard to build suspense, but despite the talent involved and the unbearable atmosphere of the asylum, the script is a letdown. The final resolution is more ludicrous than convincing.

Thou Shalt Not Cross Angelina

High on lust and low on logic, the preposterous Original Sin is an erotic thriller that evokes more laughs than sweat. The intellectually challenged and anatomically overrated Angelina Jolie is hopelessly miscast as a Victorian-era mail-order bride who arrives in Cuba to marry a lonely coffee exporter. The idea of Antonio Banderas as a handsome, wealthy coffee merchant who lives on a luxurious plantation and can’t find a wife strains credulity. The fact that he destroys his life over Ms. Jolie as the sexiest femme fatale on the planet leaves me dumbfounded. But she keeps him in a state of anxiety and confusion anyway, overpowering him with sexually illicit ecstasy (and many nude scenes, carefully positioned to hide his family jewels and her battalion of tattoos).

Despite the advice of his cynical best friend (“Happily married is an oxymoron–like happily dead”), Mr. Banderas overlooks the fact that the woman he intended to marry has mysteriously vanished and Ms. Jolie may be a murderess. Before you can check your watch, she wipes out his bank account and disappears. He hits the brothels and stops shaving, but then a private detective shows up to lead the search and bring her to justice. As the movie drags on, she reappears, armed with guns, rat poison and a number of con games. The private eye turns out to be her lover and partner in crime, much mayhem ensues, and oh the Sturm und Drang of it all!

The two stars are as comfortable in period costumes as Rockettes in overalls. Thomas Jane, the gifted and versatile hunk with a destructive genius for picking the wrong roles in the wrong movies, is wasted again as the psycho actor-detective with a penchant for French-kissing Ms. Jolie and Mr. Banderas. It’s hard to tell which one enjoys it more. This stupefying farrago of soft-porn giggling, on its way to a video store near you, was both written and directed by the same Michael Cristofer who once won a Pulitzer Prize for the excellent play The Shadow Box . There is nothing original or sinful about Original Sin , but it is positively amazing what movies can do to reduce genuine talent to rummage.

Coming to America

An American Rhapsody is a surprisingly touching and undeniably sincere attempt to explore the conflicting definitions of America through the eyes of an immigrant. Factually based on the life of its writer-director, Éva Gardos, it begins in 1950, in a Communist Hungary under the rule of Stalin, when Ms. Gardos’ father, a book publisher, was forced to escape with his wife and oldest daughter to Austria and leave his younger child behind. The flight to freedom is dangerous and harrowing, and there is every expectation that the younger daughter will soon join them. But they are sent to a concentration camp, and little Suzanne is separated from them.

After the family finally reaches the United States and settles down in a suburb of Los Angeles, the distraught mother writes letters to the Red Cross, the U.N., Eleanor Roosevelt and everyone else she can think of for the next five years. At the age of 6, Suzanne is finally shipped to the land of Elvis, Coca Cola, hot dogs and bubble gum. The film carefully and lovingly recreates the years that follow in the life of a confused, rebellious teenager in search of her own identity. When she finally returns to Hungary for a visit in 1965, a sophisticated but unhappy young woman with a foot in two separate cultures without really belonging to either, the story tugs at the heartstrings in ways some people will label manipulative.

I found the film courageous, insightful and deeply engaging, thanks largely to a homogenized cast of wonderful Hungarian and American actors working diligently for the truth. Tony Goldwyn is forceful and sympathetic as the compassionate father, but the big surprise is Nastassja Kinski as the eternally guilt-ridden mother who tries to make up for lost years by being too strict and protective. It’s her most challenging role to date, and she plays it with a focused maturity for which I was completely unprepared. Assembling the story in mosaics that contrast the starkness of Hungary with the kitschy furnishings and Day-Glo colors of sunny California, Mr. Gardos finds both humor and pathos in the material. An American Rhapsody ‘s confident sense of time, place and emotional content is more European than American, and despite a few narrative lurches, it’s a moving experience.