Apparitions and Tudor soap
ONE of the signs of a well- made film is that we tend to be more forgiving of cliches and familiar cinematic devices. No one would call The Eye a groundbreaking supernatural thriller. The basic idea is fairly old and the performances are unremarkable.
But it’s been brought off with such freshness, intelligence and restraint that all the old shock tactics work beautifully. Even the face reflected in a misty bathroom mirror — a trick at least as old as Fatal Attraction — looks scarier than usual.
The dialogue has a strange quality as well. Who would suppose that the words ‘‘ nice to see you’’ could resonate with unexpected irony? Yet somehow they do. When Sydney Wells ( Jessica Alba), a blind concert violinist whose sight has been restored with a corneal transplant sees her friends and fellow musicians for the first time at a party, ‘‘ nice to see you’’ sounds like a perfectly accurate description of her state of mind.
The real state of Sydney’s mind is a darker story. Her transplanted eyes are working normally, doctors are pleased with her progress. But she keeps seeing strange and frightening things. Recovering in hospital from her operation, she watches while the patient next to her is led quietly away by a shadowy figure in the night. Sydney not only sees ghosts, but has premonitions of people’s deaths. Can she save people from death if the warnings come in time? Should she try?
Directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud, The Eye is a Hollywood remake of a 2003 Chinese- language film that apparently went over well with Asian audiences. Sebastian Gutierrez’s screenplay sets the action in Los Angeles, and reminders of The Sixth Sense are fairly insistent. After a brief opening montage of alarming images, Sydney is seen performing on a concert platform with an orchestra. A production note assures us that Alba took violin lessons for the part and is actually playing the instrument on stage.
Such high standards of authenticity are always commendable, of course, but in a horror film they can only be taken so far. There is no suggestion Alba was required to be blind for her part, and it’s a relief to learn that the nasty apparitions in The Eye are the work of special effects crews. Much of the story, with its repeated images of fire, is seen through Sydney’s eyes, and the subjective distortion and blurriness adds greatly to the sense of horror. There is a recurring vision of a lost child in the corridor of an apartment block; later Sydney walks through the body of a young woman who is run over and killed in the street. We are led eventually to a Mexican village, where Sydney, with the help of a sympathetic eye specialist ( Alessandro Nivola), goes in search of her donor’s family.
Alba’s serene and unhysterical presence gives warmth and dignity to her character and helps compensate for the somewhat featureless personalities surrounding her. Like most heroines in supernatural thrillers, Sydney insists on living alone, which is always a mistake.
I have seen no more convincingly haunted figure since Nicole Kidman’s lonely war widow in The Others . There’s serious talk of cellular memory — the process by which organ recipients are said to share the personality traits of their donors — but none of it is convincing and in a good ghost story who needs, or wants, a rational explanation?
The last 20 minutes, which might have been lifted from a Die Hard movie, do much to shatter the eerie and delicate mood. But The Eye remains a most effective and polished thriller. Its shocks are beautifully timed. I’ve had quite enough strange shapes and figures lunging into my line of sight with loud crashing and booming noises.
And after all these years of watching films I’m surprised that such things can still send a shiver up my spine. Unlike most of the people Sydney keeps meeting in her waking life, the supernatural thriller is far from dead.
* * * I DISCOVERED in an old copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica — surely an unimpeachable source on matters of royalty — a revealing description of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife and the mother of Elizabeth I. According to a contemporary source, Anne was ‘‘ not one of the handsomest women in the world; she is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised, and in fact has nothing but the English king’s great appetite’’. So is this an ideal role for Natalie Portman, one of the handsomest women in the world?
In The Other Boleyn Girl , a historical soap opera directed in fruity style by Justin Chadwick, Portland gives us a devious and resolute Anne, while the ‘‘ other Boleyn girl’’ turns out to be her sister Mary ( whose bosom may have been a little higher than Anne’s, since she’s played by Scarlett Johansson). Henry VIII is played by Eric Bana, whose naked bosom is confined to the bedroom scenes.
Apparently, some English critics were annoyed that the three main roles in this very English drama were filled by foreign actors, but at least the girls’ mother is played by Kristin Scott Thomas, who gives one of the best performances.
How much of Chadwick’s film is faithful to Philippa Gregory’s novel, and how much of the novel is faithful to the facts, is hard to say. My guess would be about half. It’s true that Anne had a younger sister Mary, who was Henry’s mistress before he married Anne. Mary bore him a son. But when Henry tired of Mary, the scheming family pressed for Anne to take over as royal mistress, entrenching the family’s power and influence. According to Peter Morgan’s screenplay, Anne was ruthless and opportunistic, and withheld her favours until Henry agreed to marry her. This required him to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, leading to his famous rift with the pope.
Lovers of costumed melodrama will find the story irresistible, and it’s fair to say that Chadwick’s film, while it bears all the marks of phoniness common to such projects, has been made with some passion and integrity.
Johansson plays Mary as the gentle, wronged and loving sister; Portman goes for strong- willed calculation and sensuality, with hints of a feminist pride that would have been unlikely, and probably dangerous, in 16th- century England. Next to these women, Bana’s king seems rather pale and ineffectual, though he’s given some good ranting scenes towards the end.
The narrative is punctuated with harrowing childbirths, sounds of thundering hoofs and doom- laden bass notes on the soundtrack. Yes, it’s all very handsome, the costumes are great, and I felt guilty for being bored. But it’s hard to care for any of these people, and I left with my republican sympathies strongly reinforced.
In my review last week of The Black Balloon , I should have added that the co- writer ( with Elissa Down) was Jimmy Jack, aka Jimmy the Exploder.
Melodrama: Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman as sisters Mary and Anne in The Other Boleyn Girl
Convincingly haunted: Jessica Alba sees dead people and much more in supernatural thriller The Eye