City Paper is not for tourists
and David Siegel
Smoothly crafted by the writer-producer-director team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel, The Deep End effectively transports Scottish actress Tilda Swinton from English fringe cinema to the American commercial mainstream. Best known for portraying the title character in Sally Potter’s Orlando and her eight collaborations with the late experimentalist Derek Jarman, Swinton has now snagged roles in upcoming features by Spike Jonze and Cameron Crowe.
Swinton stars as Margaret Hall, a housewife in suburban Lake Tahoe, Nev. With her naval-officer husband serving on an aircraft carrier, she’s a de facto single mother, solely responsible for her three children. Upon learning that her teenage son, Beau, is involved with Darby Reese (Josh Lucas), the scummy 30-ish co-owner of a gay bar in Reno, she visits the club and warns Darby to keep away from her family. When Darby’s body subsequently turns up near her home’s lakefront pier, she hides the corpse to protect her son. Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic), a mysterious stranger, arrives armed with a clandestine videotape showing Beau and Darby having sex. A henchman for one of Darby’s associates, Alek attempts to blackmail Margaret, demanding that she pay $50,000 to prevent Beau’s involvement with the dead man from being exposed. Margaret’s desperate but unsuccessful effort to raise the cash touches Alek, who switches allegiances and defends her from the increasingly menacing threats of his partner.
The Deep End’s 25-page press kit credits the movie’s literary source, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s ’40s suspense novel The Blank Wall, but fails to mention that the book previously served as the basis of Max Ophüls’ noirish The Reckless Moment (1949), starring Joan Bennett and James Mason. This significant omission is as calculated as Margaret’s concealment of Darby’s body. Although the film’s theme and setting have little in common with Ophüls’ baroque, European-set fin de siècle romantic masterpieces Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948) and Madame De… (1953), it’s a densely textured melodrama filled with subtle, pointed insights into middle-class American values. Despite the restraints imposed by the Production Code, The Reckless Moment is surprisingly frank about the relationship that triggers the plotBennett’s rebellious teenage daughter’s liaison with a sleazeball twice her age. The film abounds with intriguingly understated touches. As Bennett’s predicament grows more dire, she shields herself in long dresses, raincoats, and dark glasses. Her conspiratorial relationship with her black housekeeper overleaps social barriers in her drastic attempt to maintain domestic appearances. After she becomes involved with Mason, her blackmailer, she’s forced to realize that, weighted down with family responsibilities, she’s become a prisoner, cut off from emotional and sexual fulfillment.
Nearly 20 minutes longer than the black-and-white The Reckless Moment and unconstrained by censorship, The Deep End is a shallower movie, padded with irrelevant incidents and showy widescreen color photography. Although Holding’s narrative is sufficiently gripping to survive these distractions, McGehee and Siegel’s adaptation dilutes the tension of Ophüls’ version. But Swinton, who appears in virtually every scene, gives a richly nuanced performance, employing a flawless American accent, and Visnjic, the Croatian-born actor whose swarthy matinee-idol presence won him undemanding parts in Committed and Practical Magic, proves that he’s more than a handsome face in a role that requires him to make the improbable shift from Margaret’s tormentor to her selfless protector.
Smarter and more rewarding than other summer fare, The Deep End is an absorbing if less than fully satisfying thriller. After seeing it, try to track down a copy of The Reckless Moment to discover the difference between a polished entertainment and a complex, penetrating work of art.
In an attempt to create something classier than the current run of ghoulishly violent, special-effects-driven horror movies, Chilean-born, Spanish-bred writer-director Alejandro Amenábar takes the high road with The Others, a haunted-house yarn whose blood count consists of a single pinprick. His none-too-original screenplay blatantly purloins elements drawn from classic psychological chillers, notably Gaslight, The Innocents, the original The Haunting, and The Sixth Sense. The result is a creaky, exposition-heavy movie with a thuddingly derivative “surprise” ending bound to exasperate fans of the genre.
Nicole Kidman stars as Grace, a mother raising her two children in a huge, forbidding Victorian mansion on the Isle of Jersey during the final days of World War II. Awaiting her husband’s return from the front, Grace attempts to protect young Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), who suffer from a rare ailment that makes them dangerously sensitive to daylight. Her task is complicated by an unsummoned trio of uncooperative servants who turn up in the film’s opening scene to replace the regular staff, which has mysteriously departed. Wandering through the gloomy, heavily curtained manse, Grace hears strange sounds, voices, and music that lead her to believe that the house is possessed, a suspicion reinforced by Anne’s claim that she has been communicating with poltergeists who roam freely through the locked rooms. A series of inexplicable events leads Grace to fear for her children’s survival and drives her to the breaking point.
The turgid opening reels”leisurely” would be too generous an adjectivepresumably prepare us for a suspenseful climax. Amenábar’s screenplay emphasizes the family’s isolation. The mansion has no electricity, telephone, or radio. Each of its 50 roomswhich, Grace instructs the servants, must be locked before the next is openedis accessible by one of 15 keys. She discovers fragments of the house’s troubled history revealing that it has been the scene of grisly events. But the lengthy buildup fails to pay off, and the fade-out revelation, which will come as no surprise to moviegoers familiar with one of the most successful suspense movies in recent years, turns out to be a cheat, leaving numerous plot threads untied.
Some estimable talents have been squandered on The Others. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe’s hazy photography of an English manor house located in Cantabrie, a city on Spain’s Atlantic Coast, convincingly represents an Isle of Jersey mansion. Fionnula Flanagan, one of Ireland’s finest actresses, gives an ambiguous, finely shaded performance as Mrs. Mills, the head servant, and Mann and Bentley, who have never acted before, are refreshingly unaffected as Grace’s children. (Rosy-cheeked Mann, however, looks much too robust to be persuasively cast as a child shielded from sunlight.)
But Kidman’s Great Lady performance is too chilly to inspire much empathy. Holding in check the sensuality she exuded in Dead Calm and the wit that informed her work in To Die For, Kidman presents a bloodless Grace who fails to engage us to share her sense of dread. The Others was co-produced by Kidman’s estranged husband, Tom Cruise (who stars in Cameron Crowe’s forthcoming Vanilla Sky, a remake of Amenábar’s second feature, Open Your Eyes). Is The Others Cruise’s remorseful star-vehicle atonement for dumping his wife, or is this limp snoozer a vindictive kiss-off designed to sabotage her post-marital career? CP