The Orphanage opens in the not too distant past in Spain. We see a young girl playing an outdoor game with a group of children. They are enjoying themselves in the yard of a large house that we discover is an orphanage for children who seem to suffer from some malady or problem. The little girl turns out to be Laura (played Mireia Renau as a girl and by Beln Rueda as an adult). Unlike the other children, she seems physically normal -- no rickets, no thick glasses, no braces, no chronic health problems. Decades later, Laura, her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and her son Simon (Roger Prncep) return to this house to reopen as a kind of boarding school. But once at the old house, Simon introduces Laura to his invisible friend and strange things begin to happen.
Geraldine Chaplin in The Orphanage (Picturehouse)
The games that the children play set the tone for the film. It is a cross between a puzzle box and a scavenger hunt. The filmmakers leave clues all along the way and ask the audience to gather them up and piece them together. This approach proves both engaging and reflective of the personalities of the children in the story. Maintaining a child's perspective is a key factor in why the film works so well. It's not a film that condescends to a youthful point of view but rather one that captures the imagination and openness of a young mind. Bayona and Snchez spin a clever and surprisingly human tale that comes together in a beautifully bittersweet ending.
Bayona reveals a true sense of craft as he takes care to establish the atmosphere and surroundings of his ghost story. He understands how to build tension and how to unnerve his audience. He creates characters that we care about, and then with careful editing and clever suggestion makes us believe in supernatural happenings. He creates a nicely chilling sequence with Geraldine Chaplin as a paranormal expert who inspects the house. And it's always nice to see Chaplin on screen. The Orphanage also has a lot in common with the atmospheric J-horror films such as Dark Water in which mood and atmosphere are employed more than gore and shock value. It also shares the same attitude about the ghosts and why they may be trying to reach out from beyond the grave. The Orphanage is a wonderfully elegant work, carefully crafted and with an eye for the small details. Bayona is aided by production designer Josep Rosell, who endows the film with a Chinese puzzle box of a house that seems to have an endless array of secret rooms and passageways. It's a setting that spurs the imagination and seems the perfect setting for ghostly visitations.
Beln Rueda in The Orphanage (Picturehouse)
Beln Rueda anchors the film with her graceful performance as Laura. Her Laura is a person who has not forgotten what it's like to be a child. There's a marvelous scene early on where she plays a visual trick on her son to make him believe that an abandoned light house still works. In that moment we see her ability to be playful and to understand how to communicate with a child. Rueda is a lovely presence and her warmth fills the film even in its darkest moments.
The Orphanage (rated R for some disturbing content) is a thinking person's ghost story. It builds slowly and pays off stunningly. In the end it offers an intriguing mix of the supernatural and horror, providing both logical explanations for some things and leaps of faith for others. It also proves to be an interesting take on the Peter Pan story. The Orphanage is a great way to start out the 2008 movie year.
Companion viewing: The Devil's Backbone, The Others, The Innocents, The Haunting (1961), Dark Water (Japanese version)