The Orphanage

English Title: The Orphanage

Original Title: El orfanato

Country of Origin: Spain

Studio: Rodar & Rodar Cine y Televisión, Producciones Cinematográficas Telecinco.

Director: Juan Antonio Bayona

Producer(s): Guillermo del Toro, Joaquín Padro , Mar Targarona

Screenplay: Sergio G Sánchez

Cinematographer: Óscar Faura

Art Director: Íñigo Navarro

Editor: Elena Ruiz

Runtime: 105 minutes

Genre: Fantasy and Horror

Language: Spanish

Starring/Cast: Fernando Cayo, Roger Princep, Mabel Rivera, Belén Rueda

Year: 2007

Volume: Spanish / Portuguese

In an isolated coastal region of Spain, Laura,her husband and young son have moved into the now closed Good Shepherd Orphanage where she grew up. The son, Simon, is a lonely child with a predilection for imaginary friends. On exploring the coastal caves Simon claims to have met a young boy, whom Laura dismisses as another fantasy creation. After a strange encounter with an elderly social worker and some mysterious incidents Laura begins to be unsettled by Simon's growing fascination for the boy and the friends he claims to have.
During a party to launch the opening of the now renovated building as a centre for special needs children, Laura is attacked by a hooded child and Simon goes missing.
Six months later the couple is still searching for Simon; the Police having failed to turn up any leads. As more unexplained incidents occur Laura enlists the help of a medium, much to her husband's displeasure.
With her marriage under strain and her desperation to find Simon growing, Laura is determined to solve the mystery about his disappearance, in turn uncovering shocking revelations relating to her own past.

Debut director Bayona's The Orphanage is an elegantly-staged, confidently-directed ghost story with a screenplay also by a debutant, Sergio G Sanchez. Drawing on elements seen in such films as The Innocents (1961), itself an adaptation of Henry James' classic novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), Alejandro Amenábar's The Others (2001) and Guillermo Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone (2001), The Orphanage is an assured and intriguing spin on familiar material.
The Orphanage was the second-highest grossing film at its premiere in the history of Spanish cinema, and was chosen by the Academia de las Artes y la Ciéncias Cinematográficas to represent Spain at the Oscars in the category of Best Foreign Language Film.
Produced by Del Toro (a close friend of Bayona) and sharing the director's fondness for the fantastic, Bayona and Sanchez have created a film that largely eschews the contemporary fashion for high octane editing, CGI and gore-laden images for a restrained atmospheric air more in keeping with that of its influences. As much a drama, a mystery and an adult fairytale as it is a horror movie, its themes are as important as any of the scares and chills that it provides.
With a narrative concerned with familial love, grief, lost innocence, psychological states and the supernatural – signalled by the opening credits showing hands tearing at wallpaper to reveal what is underneath – the viewer is immediately drawn into a World touched by sadness and buried secrets. Bayona adroitly uses visual symbols to signify what lies ahead, as the first shot of the adult Laura has her under a bed sheet – that most basic of childhood tools for creating a ghostlike apparition. Later in the film, she is seen smeared in flour, once again spectral in her appearance. Belén Rueda gives a fine performance as the increasingly-distressed Laura; she has a drained, haunted look throughout, heightened to a state of despair after Simon goes missing: the catalyst for both the supernatural elements of the film and for an exploration of longing and grief. This is really a film about a mother's love: Laura is asked how far she will go to be with her son by the medium that performs a 'psychic summoning' during the film’s second act. Laura's acceptance of the possibility of otherworldly spirits, much to her husband's chagrin, sets up the film's climax, which veers from the horrific to an ultimately sad but tender resolution. The revelation regarding the past events at the Orphanage reveals a darker interpretation of motherly love.
The film's environment and the use of sound conform to the classic ghost stories of the past: the old isolated creaking house, high sea winds, crashing waves, stormy skies and frequent rain; Fernando Velazquez's grandiose orchestral score heightens the tension and dramatic sequences. The coastline itself is made to look suitably oppressive, more a place of danger and mystery than of sunshine and relaxation. The orphanage becomes a place of dark corners and shadowy corridors rather than a sanctuary and place of warmth. The use of children is another familiar trait, here used both for chilling and empathetic effect.
Although The Orphanage may not reach the heights of The Others or The Devil's Backbone, it is certainly an intelligent genre piece and a thoughtful character study in which the chilling moments come unexpectedly and the graphic images it does contain have more impact precisely because Bayona was not beholden to the fashion for their excessive use.

Author of this review: Neil Mitchell