Orphanage, The (Mexico/Spain, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Orphanage is an effective mixture of horror and fantasy, with the supernatural bleeding into dreams that teeter on the brink of reality. It employs a similar, although not identical, approach to the one that marked 2006's late-year success, Pan's Labyrinth. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, the director of Pan's Labyrinth, has lent his support to The Orphanage, allowing the opening credits and poster art to state "Presented by Guillermo del Toro." So his shadow looms large over the film and one can acknowledge that director J.A. Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez have learned well from him as they proceed down this unusual path.

The story begins with a flashback to an orphanage where a group of children are playing a game. Little do they know that the time has come for one of their most popular number, Laura, to depart. Fast-forward some thirty years. Now, Laura (Belén Rueda) is a grown woman with a husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and an adopted son, Simón (Roger Príncep). She and Carlos have purchased the old orphanage building with the goal of turning it into a home for handicapped children. But strange things begin to happen. Simón, who has always had a vivid imagination, makes "friends" with boys and girls his parents cannot see. Things begin to go bump in the night. A strange woman (Montserrat Carulla) wanders the grounds. Everything culminates in the kidnapping of Simón. But who is behind his disappearance? Has he wandered into a cave by the sea and been drowned at high tide? Has he been taken by the strange woman or one of her confederates? Or are there spirits within the orphanage that will not rest? The more Laura becomes convinced that the supernatural may be at work, the more Carlos begins to doubt her sanity.

While the plot structure of The Orphanage occasionally runs into dead spots and unnecessary detours (such as a séance conducted Geraldine Chaplin's medium), the ending is perfect (or nearly so). It represents the right combination of tragedy and hope, of the inevitability of death and the promise of existences undreamed of. The movie's overall story is dense and weaves together a number of different plot threads, all of which combine at the end.

As with most ghost stories, this one is more unsettling than genuinely frightening, and there is no gore to speak of. The scares are often in the nature of strange noises from behind sealed-off walls and odd apparitions appearing in the distance. Labeling The Orphanage as a horror film, while accurate, is almost unfair. There's nothing in this movie to connect it with the popular, graphic entries that have come to dominate the genre. This movie relies on growing tension, mystery, and the possibility that supernatural forces may be at work to achieve its storytelling power.

The film's acting anchor is Belén Rueda, a popular Spanish television actress who is receiving her first international exposure. As Laura, she is amazing, displaying a variety of reactions believably and drawing us in so we see things from her perspective. For Laura, The Orphanage becomes a gradual journey from skepticism to faith as she surrenders her doubts about the supernatural and gives up everything in her quest to find her son. In the end, nothing else matters, and her solution to a seemingly intolerable situation illustrates the depth of her love. In this difficult role, Rueda is never anything less than convincing.

The Orphanage is not as good as Pan's Labyrinth. The set design fails to achieve the same level of inventiveness, the screenplay is less tight, and the secondary characters are not as compelling. However, for those who enjoy ghost stories and are willing to be patient with a movie that gradually unveils its secrets rather than uncovering them all in an orgy of violence and terror, The Orphanage fills a need. The spell it casts early does not evaporate until the epilogue is finished.

Orphanage, The (Mexico/Spain, 2007)

Director: J.A. Bayona
Cast: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep, Mabel Rivera, Montserrat Carulla, Geraldine Chaplin
Screenplay: Sergio G. Sanchez
Cinematography: Oscar Faura
Music: Fernando Velazquez
U.S. Distributor: Picturehouse
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2007-12-28
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Mature Themes, Profanity)
Subtitles: Engilsh subtitled Spanish
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1