The Orphanage Review

The tradition of the ‘civilised’ ghost story has been long and distinguished and is perhaps best embodied in the work of M.R. James. His writing relies as much on atmospheric technique as in-your-face horror and, although he rises spectacularly to climaxes of exquisite terror, it’s often the build up you remember where things are not quite right and the familiar sights and small noises of the everyday world turns subtly hostile. Although it took the cinema some time to realise the cinematic potential of his work, Jamesian horror has become an important part of the genre after films such as The Innocents, The Haunting, Don’t Look Now, Dark Water, The Devil’s Backbone and, most commercially successful, The Others. This mode is certainly dominant in Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage, a hugely impressive and thoroughly confident feature debut guided and presented by the excellent Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro. There are reminders of Del Toro’s work in the movie but I think it’s more than strong enough to stand up on its own merits.

The story, like many good ghost stories, centres around the sins of the past returning to haunt the present – and the horrific past is often evoked in grainy 16MM. Laura (Rueda) returns to the orphanage where she spent some of her childhood with her husband and her HIV-positive son Simon, intending to open it and do good works. But something is deeply wrong and, when her son goes missing during the opening ceremony, Laura realises that after she left the orphanage to go to her adoptive parents, something terrible happened.

One thing which all reviewers have agreed upon, whatever their opinion of the film, is the power and grace of Belen Rueda’s astonishing central performance in the kind of meaty role which actresses long to get their teeth into. Laura is a difficult character who behaves in irrational and sometimes unsympathetic ways but Rueda makes us realise that this is all down to her grief over the loss of her son – she demonstrates how grief changes one’s psychological make-up and turns rationality on its head. Bayona’s camera loves Rueda’s face, gifting her with classically-lit close-ups and teasing out emotion in every shift of the eyes. She does the vital job of anchoring this ghost story in a recognisable emotional space and, consequently, allows the ending to be work in so emotionally shattering a way. Rueda has got all of the headlines but I was moved too by Fernando Cayo’s portrayal of a loving husband trying to get through to a wife who is past all reason. Cayo doesn’t have much of a character to play – the script is tightly focused on Laura – but he manages not to make the audience hate him. None of the performers disgrace themselves and I want to make special mention of two people; Roger Princep, one of the most accomplished child actors I’ve seen for some time; and the great Geraldine Chaplin, speaking fluent Spanish and looking suitably drawn and haunted as a psychic who is drafted into the investigation.

There is a powerful character drama going on in The Orphanage but it can also be richly enjoyed as a horror movie, full of enough shocks and hide-your-eyes moments of dread to satisfy the most demanding genre fan. One is reluctant to give too much away for fear of spoiling the experience for first-time viewers but I have to single out the scene where Laura is forced to play a supernatural game of “What is the time, Mr Wolf?” which had me hiding my eyes behind a cushion. However, it’s characteristic of Bayona’s real concerns that the single most horrifying moment is the discovery of a past atrocity which provokes both fear and anger in the viewer – he is well aware that horror is heightened by a strong emotional reaction. All of these fright scenes rely heavily on the contribution of the sound designer – the sound design of the film is intricate and subtle throughout with significant use of silence.

Despite the powerful scenes of fear, however, what one takes away from the film is a potent, lingering sense of longing which is embodied in the sun-shrouded, deeply nostalgic prologue and recurs throughout the film as Laura tries desperately to understand how actions in the past have led to present circumstances. Laura’s desperate desire for things to be different – for Simon not to have HIV, for the plans for the orphanage reopening to have been a success, for the cave never to have been discovered and, most significantly, for her adoption to have never taken place – is the heart of the film and it’s a desire which can have only one logical conclusion. To their eternal credit, Bayona and Sanchez refuse to shrink from this turn of events, resulting in one of the most memorable endings of recent years.

For a first feature, The Orphanage is an impressively finished piece of work. Much credit should go to the cinematographer Oscar Faura who is a veteran of this kind of thing having worked on the camera units of Jaume Balaguero’s work such as Los Sin Nombres and Fragile - films which are well worth your attention if you like understated horror. The contrast of sunlit past and chilly, grey-blue present is beautifully achieved and the drabness of the contemporary is linked to Laura’s emotional position. The sweeping use of the Scope ratio is suitably reminiscent of Freddie Francis' camerawork on The Innocents. Equally praiseworthy is Fernando Velazquez’s gorgeous orchestral score which deliberately harks back to the days of Miklos Rosza and Bernard Herrmann and allows the emotional potential of this most affecting of films to be fully realised. As his beautiful main theme sweeps across the sound channels at the end, we realise that this hasn’t been so much a horror film as the story of the desperate love a mother has for her child and the tragedy of children without a mother to love them. In the final moments, everything falls into place and The Orphanage becomes all of a piece.

The Disc

The Orphanage is one of the most acclaimed films of the year so far but many viewers will probably encounter it for the first time on DVD given the reluctance of many cinemas to give screen time to subtitled works.

Optimum’s disc of the film presents it in its original Scope aspect ratio and is anamorphically enhanced. It’s a rather grainy transfer, more so than strictly necessary, although this may be characteristic of the original material. There’s also a certain softness which seems out of place and doesn’t, to these eyes, do justice to the cinematography which so wowed me in the cinema. However, the detail is often good and colours are faithful and accurate. In terms of sound, there are two Spanish language tracks, one in Dolby Digital 2.0 and another in 5.1. The latter is the track to choose, offering a very atmospheric experience as sound creeps up behind you and envelops you in the experience. The music also sounds marvellous on this track. The 2.0 is functional but lacks the involvement of the 5.1.

The first disc contains the film alone and the extra features are confined to a disc of their own. None of these are absolutely essential to an appreciation of the film but all of them are interesting. The most satisfying is a 40 minute Q&A hosted by Mark Kermode and featuring Bayona and Oriol Tarrago. It’s all a bit superficial and Bayona never seems to me to quite get to the point in his answers but he’s an eloquent man, with excellent English, and it’s good to hear his thoughts on a film which is clearly very deeply felt. Everything else on the disc is comparatively brief apart from some deleted scenes. These are interesting but it would have been nice to be able to see them without the director talking over them, especially the alternative ending and the original prologue. Otherwise, we get pieces on the lighting, the sound and set designs – the film was largely shot in a studio – and a making-of which is full of mutual back-slapping. It’s interesting to see the original ‘projections’ – the grainy 16MM images of the past – but they are rather less effective out of context.

Everything is subtitled in English where necessary but the English sections of the extras do not have subtitles.

The Orphanage is a very satisfying film in the way that events which seem inexplicable eventually cohere and resolve. It marks out Bayona as a director to watch and one hopes that the Hollywood remake doesn’t traduce the original – at least not too much. Optimum’s DVD of the film is very pleasing and is definitely worth your time.

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