The Orphanage Review
With Del Toro's name hanging above the titles, it can't be surprising that this ghost story would put me in mind of his opening to the film Devil's Backbone. There Del Toro asks what is a ghost and considers whether it is a memory trapped in time or an injustice still to be corrected, and in JA Bayona's The Orphanage, the audience finds itself in similar territory where we consider the nature of feeling, memory and time. Like Del Toro's work the film has a sense of magical realism and the labyrinth about it, but specifically this is a film about bereavement and loss.
This is a less ambitious project than the producer's best, which is not as well realised in terms of character or emotional situations as both Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. Where The Orphanage has relevance or power, it is in the personal realm of parenthood and children rather than the political or spiritual. Whilst the film shares touches with Del Toro's work, the desire for fantasy and reverie especially, it shares a stronger thematic link with Alejandro Amenabar's The Others and the precursors to that film such as Jack Clayton's The Innocents. The movie also uses a reveal much like Amenabar's best known work for emotional impact but offers its resolution as a route out of loss and grief rather than a portrayal of desolation.
This is set unsurprisingly in the building where Laura spent her childhood with other lost and disabled children. As an adult, she has now returned with her hubby and their adopted child, Simon, to renovate the building and put it back to its former use. When holding a garden party for potential boarders, her child disappears and his previous tales of invisible friends and ghosts start to seem less like the ramblings of a lonely child and something more sinister. The police can't find him and six months pass when Laura remembers the game her child told her of in which his friends left clues when they took something of his, and she starts to discover the truth about the old house and her missing child by following an otherworldly trail.
Dark and spooky with a sound design to freeze your blood and send the heart racing, this is a chiller that relies on the unseen and the barely heard. Impressively, the film also seeks an emotional depth that lifts this from a run of the mill effort to something more moving. Mostly, the film is entirely presented from the perspective of the grieving mother whose lost child reminds her of her lost family and who seeks a belonging that brings her closer to the dead than the living. Her husband is an under-written or poorly edited character, and her growing grief separates Laura from this man she married. She tries earthly recourse to find the child and eventually opts for the world of spirits and mediums, finding freedom from her pain in imagination and dreams of the past.
The emotional content is also derived from the scenes of flashback to the orphans, who are a motley bunch of social misfits, disabled, and scarred and, above all, rejected by the world outside. That Laura is motivated to offer the care that they needed, drives the film to its final conclusion. As Laura, Belen Rueda dashes through the story with growing desperation, and eventually she is driven to perceive the unseen and lost; her performance is the fulcrum of the melodrama and she is strong, persistent, and passionate. That we spend the whole film with her means that we have to really understand and identify, and Rueda's committed and carefully modulated acting ensures that she never becomes a screaming banshee, or seems like she has lost her grip on sanity.
The remainder of the cast are fairly functional and it does feel as if the writing and editing has focused on the central relationship between mother and son to the detriment of the other characters. This renders the rest of cast a little faceless, and only Geraldine Chaplin as a genuine psychic manages to flesh out any of the other roles.
Still, what causes the film to be largely successful is the twin delivery of melodrama and frights. The cinematography allows the dark old house to seem as if every shadow is filled with potential phantoms, and the sound design is brilliant, with occasional scurrying coming from all around the characters, and floorboards and doors creaking when needed. Even if the writing is not the standard of Del Toro's work, the technical delivery of the image and sound is truly excellent. Without such fine work on the crew, and without Belen Rueda, perhaps this would have been a real misfire, but with these fine contributions the film is rather effective and rather moving.
Optimum present the film on a single layer BD25, which is 80% used and presented with plenty of extras. The main feature uses only 13.9GB and the transfer, whilst strong in terms of contrast and sharpness, is not as detailed as I would like. Edges show marginal enhancement, I did notice some aliasing and sometimes parts of the image seem a little like cut outs and not properly integrated into their environment. The two soundtracks include a strong and downright spooky standard def 5.1 which shows off the background noises excellently and creeped me out. The sub-woofer captures atmosphere and surroundings well and the rear and side speakers are solidly used spatially in terms of effects, and music is evenly distributed along the side and rear. Dialogue is well balanced with effects and music, and distortion is not apparent at any point. The DTS HD MA track down-mixed on my set up and was much, much quieter, it is similarly imperfection free in mastering and source. The English subtitles are removable, and always easy to follow and sensible in their construction. I do note that the disc and its extras played well on my Region A player and it is region free.
Before I get onto the special features, a word about the menu which is designed like the opening titles of the film. The menu allows individual extras to be watched on their own but does not include options for watching all the deleted scenes or storyboards in one chunk. The extras begin with a 40 minute Q&A hosted by Mark Kermode with Bayona, his sound designer Oriol Tarrago and a translator who is rarely used. The director talks about meeting Del Toro years ago when he was promoting Cronos and the Mexican maestro's role in overseeing this project, his luck in finding the script, and the care that went into set design and the sound. Bayona's English is good and he is an enthusiastic talker. He is more subdued in the interview included here with him and Del Toro as they publicise the film, and his producer is most definitely in full Don King mode as the Budapest audience witness him praising his director and the script to the rafters. Three featurettes deal with the construction of the impressive sets, the design of the sound, and the photography. The sound one is rather interesting using comparisons between onset recordings as scenes are shot, and the process as the music and additional effects are layered on. This is narrated by the sound designer who does a fine job of making his work interesting and accessible. The photography featurette emphasises the use of natural and muted lighting in the film and the aim for a realistic aesthetic, it is accompanied by an interview with the DP.
The Making of is relatively short and zooms through the discovery of the script, the casting, the filming and the post production. Del Toro calls the script the best Spanish screenplay he's ever seen, but he is endlessly complimentary about all the crew and cast and I suppose this is basically a promotional short so critical depth should not be expected. There are nine alternative and deleted scenes, which are mostly extended versions of ones already in the film such as the social worker's visit, the flashback that starts the film and elements of the party at which Simon goes missing. Most of the cuts are for pacing and the director explains in the accompanying commentary that this was part of a plan to leave some things less clear and up to the viewer to construe. There are some hand-held camera scenes shot on location included which are accompanied by the musical score and no explanation for their inclusion here. Trailers for the US and Spanish release are included as well.
My favourite extras here are the piece with the young actor who plays Simon, and the storyboard and animatics that were used in pre-production. Roger Princep is precocious and a delight, I usually hate children but even I am charmed by this kid as he explains he doesn't watch horror movies and says that this film is not "scary". The storyboard to screen comparisons are very good and cover three of the main scenes of the film, and the animatics are similarly intriguing as they demonstrate how the action was planned to move during shooting.
The Orphanage is not as good as the best of Del Toro's films, so don't hold out for that kind of quality, but it is a very presentable and affecting chiller which will shock and move you. The main transfer here is a rather small file-size, but has few noticeable flaws and the extras are generous if all in standard definition. Most definitely a good rental, but worth a punt if you like your films spooky and emotional.