The Orphanage

The Orphanage

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Things that go bump in the night are much scarier when unfettered by CGI. Spanish and Latin American directors have cottoned on to this a lot faster than your average Hollywood helmer. Also, the best ghost stories require children, whose imagination and ability to believe in the unseen has yet to be tamed.

The Orphanage follows in the strong tradition of everything from The Innocents (1961) to Poltergeist and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Striking a similarly sinister note to these and, in particular, Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others and Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, first-time feature writer Sergio G Sanchez and debut director Juan Antonio Bayona delicately turn the screw.

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If you were among those who ever found anything unsettling about J M Barrie’s Peter Pan, concerning “the boy who never grew up” and the girl who did, then this ghostly revisiting of its themes will have you on the edge of your seat.

Laura (Belen Rueda) and Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have returned to the orphanage where Laura stayed briefly as a child – illustrated by a lovingly filmed flashback to her playing a game with the other kids. Their adopted son Simon (Roger Princep), who is HIV positive, runs about the old place, playing with his imaginary pals, but the couple are sure this will change when they take in more orphaned sick children, who can give him some real-life friendship.

Out playing one day by the beach, Simon makes a new imaginary pal and when he asks mum if it’s okay to bring him home the hairs begin to rise on the back of your neck. When, following a sinister visit from a social worker (Montserrat Carulla), Simon vanishes, Laura finds herself unable to let go, certain that he is still alive.

Rueda, best known for her award-winning role in The Sea Inside, is never less than commanding, as a woman driven to the edge by a fear of the future and an uncertainty about the past. As she walks the ledge between reality and imagination, hope and expectation, we make the journey with her.

Crawling camerawork recalls similar scenes in executive producer del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, although the house is less of a character here than in other supernatural films, such as Amityville and Psycho. It is the internal structures of Laura’s mind that are important. As her world unravels, she regresses back to childhood and the supernatural, like the children in the game, begin to creep up behind her.

While this is a careful exploration of loss, Sanchez and Bayona never lose sight of the requirements of the genre, providing plenty in the way of seat-gripping tension and finding suitable shocks in the everyday, without opening the bag of cheap special effects. Like Laura, our mind begins to play tricks on us as we enter her world and that of the children. As a medium (Geraldine Chaplin), who walks through the house in one of the film’s most eerie segments, puts it: “Seeing is not believing. It’s the other way around.”

At the time of writing it had just been announced that the film will be this year’s Spanish entry for the foreign language Oscar, following in the footsteps of Pan’s Labyrinth. It seems a little unfair that it might come to be seen as languishing in the shadow of del Toro. In fact, both films were in production simultaneously and it's more an act of luck that some of the themes appear similar, rather than Bayona paying reference to his sponsor. Where Pan's Labyrinth was on a broad historical canvas, The Orphanage is more concerned with what makes people tick. And while, thematically, the story is not breaking new ground, it is assuringly told and brilliantly acted. The only slight letdown is a false ending, which proves to be much more in keeping with the rest of the action’s tension and tone than the one that actually wraps up the film.

Reviewed on: 29 Sep 2007
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Ghost story about a family who live in an orphanage.


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