Director: J.A. Bayona
Cast: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep, Mabel Rivera, Montserrat Carulla, Edgar Vivar, Geraldine Chaplin
MPAA Rating: (for some disturbing content)
Running Time: 1:40
Release Date: 12/28/07 (limited); 1/11/08 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik
One of the thematic through lines of The Orphange (El Orfanato) is no less than the essence of the horror genre boiled down to its simplest form: the inevitably of death. Death is not a character here, but it might as well be, with its looming presence inhabiting every fiber of the plot, character backgrounds, and spirituality of J.A. Bayona's feature film debut. The film takes the formula of a haunted house story, its usual trappings (some strange noises, a few sinister apparitions, and one messed up past), and its typical eerie ambiance and creates some genuinely creepy moments and a sad tone of loss and remorse that elevates the tale beyond our expectations for the genre.
From a character who is destined to die tragically from the offset to a psychic who uncovers a past full of murder in the house to a woman who denies that there is no other way for her search to end but in heartbreak, the mood of The Orphanage is set in farther than the surface elements of an old, worn-down house, bumps in the night, and the occasional disturbing image. It cuts deeper to heart of a woman's despair.
There's a prologue of the old orphanage in its heyday, with a group of children playing in the yard—an idyllic shower of flower petals surrounding them. One of the young girls has been adopted and is ready to leave. Years later, Laura (Belén Rueda), the girl who left the orphanage, has returned to where she grew up with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and son Simón (Roger Príncep). Her plan is to turn the old orphanage into a home for children with special needs. One day, a social worker (Montserrat Carulla) arrives with Simón's file.
As it turns out, Laura's son is adopted and HIV positive—both facts Laura wants to keep from her Simón until he is older. Meanwhile, Simón has imaginary friends, and he meets a new one named Tomás in a cave on the beach. Tomás has other friends, who like to play a game. They steal a piece of treasure from you, Simón tells his mother, and hide it, leaving clues behind. If you find the treasure, you are granted a wish. In playing the game, Simón finds the file the social worker left behind, and from there, a series of events lead to his mysterious disappearance.
Beforehand, though, Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez make sure we understand the burden of Simón's disease on Laura and the way his haphazard discovery affects the mother-son relationship. As Simón reads the story of Peter Pan, he's shocked to discover that Wendy grows old. "I'll never get old," he tells his mother; "I'll never grow up." The irony of that statement is fully realized by Laura, and there's the slightest sense of heavy tragedy on her face. Belén Rueda's performance is key to film's success, and there's never a moment in which her Laura doesn't appear to be weighed down by the eventual despair she must face.
Once Simón learns of his past and his illness, he is angry with his mother, and that conflict and her own blame continue up until the boy's vanishing. That guilt then adds an almost manic level of drive to Laura's search for Simón; their final interaction was one of anger. Six months go by, and there is still no trace. Laura and Carlos attend a support group for parents who have lost children, and she is still adamant that her son is alive. A detective (Mabel Rivera) offers little hope for her.
This is where the medium (Geraldine Chaplin) comes in, and there's a chilling scene in which Laura witnesses a séance to the horrors that befell the house after she was adopted. Bayona has some of the other usual tricks (e.g., noises in the wall and a gotcha moment, particularly effective for the grotesque state of the grabber) for the genre, but Sánchez's script occasionally uses them in conjunction with moments of character. One notable scene has Laura opening her soul about her emotions since Simón's disappearance to her husband in bed, or so she thinks until she realizes her husband has been in the bathroom.
Has Laura lost her mind, or are there forces working in the way Simón told her, leaving clues behind for Laura's lost, most beloved treasure? The climax is intriguing in that it leaves both possibilities open for debate, and it works extremely well because of the emotional atmosphere Bayona has established at the same time as the freaky haunted house motif. Laura participates in a childhood game yet again, only with sinister potential. The ultimate climactic confrontation has a fantastical nightmare suddenly shifting into a very real one, and again, Rueda's performance is vital here.The Orphanage is an effective chiller, and if Bayona and Sánchez are perhaps a bit too keen on the conventions on the genre, they more than make up for it with their focus on the emotional plight of the film's heroine. The final moments of the film are haunting not because of ghosts but because of a misery too cruel to fathom.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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