‘The Orphanage’ review

31 10 2010

[written by reviewer and writer, Harry Markov]

The Orphanage (El Orfanato) is a 2007 Spanish horror film, which I overlooked, based on the fact that its choice to scare is an orphanage, which automatically means ghastly children. Personally, I have tired of demonic children. Yes, Samara (The Ring) was delightfully terrifying, but I can’t say the same about other horror movies such as Dark Water and The Antichrist. However, Mark assured me it was well worth my time and gave it a shot.

Now, what The Orphanage accomplishes is to create a truly atmospheric movie. All recent US attempts at tales of haunting pale compared to The Orphanage. The movie works to create a sense of setting, present compelling characters for me to care about and avoid the cheap scares, such as constant barrages of screeching noises, sudden bursts of movement, screaming and gore. No, the scare here creeps in, much like frost. It’s a descent into grief-induced madness and the results of human wickedness.

The plot follows Laura (Belen Rueda), a woman who returns home, to an orphanage with plans to restore it into a home for disabled children. The days of preparation function as an introduction to Laura’s life, her interaction with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and son Simon (Roger Princep), the concerns she harbors for Simon’s constant use of imaginary friends as a coping mechanism, her dedication as a mother and her altruism. However, it’s not long until a mysterious woman appears and Simon befriends six more children, who, this time, are supposedly real, when things go wrong. On the day of the opening, Simon disappears after a fight with Laura and from here on the movie follows Laura’s desperate search for her son, not to mention unveiling all of the secrets surrounding the orphanage.

What utterly captivated me is how whole The Orphanage is. There is nothing in excess. Every frame, every scene, every item that passes in front of the lens plays a part later on and I’d say that this is a movie for people with a long attention span. The woman with the faked identity, the new game Simon and Laura played, a small brooch and even fallen pipes are of importance as the end nears and all these elements swarm together into an intricate puzzle, which paints a very tragic chain of events.

If I’m to discuss the plot any further, spoilers will be revealed; a big disservice to all potential viewers. Instead, I will move on to the actors’ performances. Rueda’s acting is intense and overpowering. I didn’t just watch a desperate and haunted woman reach the end of her strength, her resources to find her son even after nine months, her sanity. I wanted to help her push through it all. Her acting is all-consuming, raw and believable. Cayo felt stiff and two dimensional, but his role was limited in the first place. Princep is convincing as a sweet and emotional boy, who spends a lot of his time in his own world, which more or less leads him to his death. The surprise for me was Geraldine Chaplin, who plays the medium Aurora. It’s a brief appearance, but the scenes with her séance are some of the more memorable and hair-raising ones.

I’ll conclude with just how unusual this movie is. First, the orphanage itself was never shown as negative, gloomy or foreboding. In fact, to Laura this was home, as shown in the movie’s opening. For Laura, the orphanage is a return to her past as well as a promise for a new beginning. Second, the haunting transcends the characteristic ‘a few days to a few weeks’ time frame. I’m talking about nine months of subtle accumulation of events, which also doubles as the deconstruction of Laura’s psyche. Third, the ending is more than bitter, but sweet in its own way as well.

The Orphanage may not have hostile ghosts erupting into violent acts of bizarre property damage and its ghosts may seem passive, but director Juan Bayona and Fernando Velazquez (the man behind the soundtrack) know how to keep the viewers on the edge of their seats.

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2 responses

31 10 2010
Paul D. Brazill

Tup post. I love that film. I found very sad,too.

31 10 2010
Paul D. Brazill

‘Top’ post, that should read1

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