The Orphanage is a dramatically engaging thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the end. If you liked Pan’s Labyrinth, you’ll enjoy this. The Orphanage mirrors its predecessor with an intense, imaginative script, an eerie set and fairy tale theme, and an ambivalently happy ending.
Laura, Carlos and their adopted son, Simon, have moved into the sinister old orphanage where Laura grew up. They plan to open it as a home for disabled children.
A few days after the move, Simon begins to talk about some invisible friends he has made. These ‘friends’ lay down clues for Simon to find, which lead to ‘treasure’ at the end of the trail. The treasure turns out to be information about Simon (he is seriously ill) which Laura and Carlos have striven to hide. After more mysterious occurrences, Laura realises that Simon’s new friends not only exist but that their intentions are less than amicable. Simon disappears and Laura and Carlos are left with a gaping mystery. What has happened to their son? The answer lies in the dark history of the house.
The film is excellently cast. Belen Rueda gives a heart-rending performance as the grieving Laura. Fernando Cayo as Carlos provides the voice of reason as he offsets Laura’s desperation to find Simon by kindly hinting that the paranormal happenings are a figment of her imagination.
Del Toro recycles screen tricks we’ve seen a hundred times before, and makes them work. Doors and windows slam independently, the shape of a body burrows under the covers beside Laura while her back is turned. A child in a scarecrow’s mask appears, and Simon talks to an elusive figure deep inside a sea cave. You know they’re all tricks to make you jump, but you still can’t help silently urging Laura: ‘Don’t go in!’
The director, Juan Antonio Bayona, presents us with a fresh spin on the traditional ghost story. He empowers child-ghosts, upsetting the adult-child hierarchy, which others have done before, but these ghosts have not learned from their deaths. In fact, all they want to do is play, and that is the problem. The young ghosts have no sense of consequence. Laura understands that if she wants to find out what’s happened to Simon, she’ll have to play a game with them. It would be a shame to give away the ending, but we discover the director has played as much of a game with us as the ghosts play with Laura and Simon. When we discover what has happened to Simon, if anything, it is the last thing we expect.
Bayona’s children are ghosts without guidance. The Orphanage is no lesson in parenting, but it does make us consider, in a time when television and the Internet are fracturing childhood innocence, whether teaching children the realities of the world is a good thing after all. Innocence, combined with ignorance, can be fatal. VP
Genre: Drama, Horror, Mystery & Suspense
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Writer: Sergio G. Sánchez
Cast: Geraldine Chaplin, Belén Rueda, Roger Príncep, Fernando Cayo
Running time: 1 hr. 45 min.