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El Orfanato (The Orphanage)

March 20, 2008

Mad about the boy…

Laura (Belén Rueda) grows up in an orphanage by the sea, until one day (seen in the pre-credit sequence) she is taken away by her new adoptive parents. Thirty years later she returns with her own family, husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and young son Simón (Roger Príncep), to blow the cobwebs off the old place and re-open it as a home for sick and disabled kids.

Taken away so young (she is six or seven in those early moments) her memories of the old home are hazy, but swim into her mind’s eye regularly. She has no recollection of what happened to her young friends, but becomes uneasy as stronger and stronger images of the past occur to her. Also a little disturbing is Simón who – until the new children arrive – must create imaginary friends as secret playmates. Gradually he seems more and more determined that these children are real. He draws pictures of them and one, a child wearing a sack mask, appears to be suddenly familiar to Laura.

The day of the children’s arrival approaches, but on the eve of the big event, a sinister social worker turns up to ask searching questions about Simón. She knows, and the audience now discovers, that the boy is adopted, that he has a serious illness (later we find out what it is), but Laura is very protective and throws the woman out. Doubts grow in your mind about Laura. Is she to be trusted? You see the film from her point of view, hell, you can’t escape from being inside her mind; but can you trust her?

On the day of the Grand Opening, Simón has an argument with Laura and runs off. Months pass, the home for children idea is shelved, and Laura and Carlos descend into melancholy. Driven by her despair, Laura tries to find out what happened to Simón, who the mysterious social worker might be, and what exactly happened at the orphanage after she left it so many years before.

Roger Ebert, in his review, said that El Orfanato was deliberately aimed at viewers with developed attention spans, and he’s spot on. There are ample opportunities here to descend into schlock and horror, but what first-time director Juan Antonio Bayona opts for instead (іAleluya, el héroe!) are long, long drawn out periods of absolute tension. For those waiting for jolts of terror, there is something about halfway through that will have you leaping out of your seat in surprise, but that’s merely there to prove it’s possible and the guy’s playing with you. For the most part Bayona wants to ratchet it up by degrees.

Is this a thriller, a ghost story or an exploration of the dark corners that despair and sorrow and grief can take us? I’m not sure. Covering a lot of shared ground with The Others and The Innocents, El Orfanato focuses on one woman whose emotions are no longer limited by the safety of conventional relationships. Losing her anchor via grief, Laura is forced to confront the things she’s scared of, and she’s going to drag you along with her. Rueda gives an intensely physical performance here, utterly driven by her need to find out what happened to her little boy. She’s got you on her grip, on her side, because you feel her grief for her, and once you’ve taken that step in, you’re hooked, even if, when the lights start to flicker, you may no longer fully trust the person whose hand you’re holding.

There are some distressing moments here (one, where Laura meets the child covered by the mask, will stay with you for good) but none as scary as the trailers. Do not watch them until after you have seen this terrific, thoughtful, smart movie. I don’t know what audience they think they’re aiming it at (or, rather, I’m afraid I do) but it’s not the one it should reach. After 30 minutes a bunch of kids left, muttering, disenchanted no doubt by the lack of cheerleaders and jocks being offed in increasingly inventive ways. Saw, this ain’t. Extraordinary it most certainly is.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2008 9:41 pm

    Yeah, well much as I hate to side with the kids, it is certainly being sold as a straight horror in the press. No mention at all, of course, of its being in a foreign language!

  2. amner permalink
    March 22, 2008 4:20 pm

    Bloody typical. That’s the sort of thing that puts me in a real grump. The Guardian Saturday guide seemed more extensive in its appreciation of its scope, etc. I just hope people take a punt and realise that this is genuine more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts piece of cinema.

  3. broilster permalink
    April 24, 2008 5:13 pm

    I have to say that I thought it was vastly overrated and not very frightening at all. Plus, what was that ridiculously cliched cameo from Chaplin all about?

  4. April 28, 2008 5:41 pm

    Thanks for dropping by, Broilster.

    Well, each to their own, of course; one man’s scare-fest is another’s sleeping pill, I guess, although until you mentioned Chaplin I wondered if we might be talking about the same film.

    I didn’t see any problem with Chaplin, in fact. To be honest I thought that her visage perfectly suited the grim green light in those CCTV images.

    Chacun a son gout…

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