Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Age of Orphans

The Orphanage
2007 Spain/Mexico
Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona
Warner Brothers DVD Region 2

Warning: You may find some little spoiler orphans wandering through the text here. If you do, please think carefully before adopting them.

The Orphanage is one of those movies which people had been telling me to check out for quite some time. Since I had been unable to see it on its release at the cinema I had been somewhat reluctant to purchase said movie on DVD until I could find it at what I have come to adopt as... the right price. So for £2 ex-rental from my last Camden Film Fair visit I thought it high time to pay this orphanage a little visit. I wanted to watch some kind of horror double bill to acknowledge Halloween this year so I picked The Orphanage double billed with A Virgin Among The Living Dead.

The Orphanage is a spooky movie and it’s one of those films that tries to be both an atmospheric, tense and haunting narrative but with the occasional peek into the grotesque. There isn’t too much in the way gore or ugly shocks, for example, except for an elliptical nod to the kind of unmasking thrills of The Phantom of the Opera and a quite wonderful scene of gory, post death reveal where an old woman gets run over and half her face caved in to the bone. You get a very brief glimpse of her face for maybe less than a second before she is tastefully covered up. However, within another 20 seconds or so you get a full on jump-shock type scare where you see rather more of that gory aftermath than you’d perhaps have liked.

For the most part, though, the movie relies on the usual suspenseful tricks of camera movement and the suggestion of things you can’t quite see to slowly weave a web of unease in the audience. And it does it quite well I must say. The performances were all first rate and this helped to keep the simultaneous “ghost world” of the picture grounded in a certain reality. That is to say, there’s absolutely no problems suspending your disbelief on this one.

It even features a nice guest spot with Geraldine Chaplin turning in a typical, no nonsense performance as a medium and it is in a ghostly sequence here that the movie works very well and starts to take on an almost, homegrown 1950s - 1970s BBC teleplay kind of atmosphere as the various witnesses watch the medium, Aurora, on a bank of cam-screens as she goes it alone in a very tense sequence where her description of what we, the audience, can’t see is the only information you are getting as to what the heck is going on... and typically, of course, your own imagination fills in the blanks. It is in moments like this that you feel you are watching something straight out of an episode of The Omega Factor or Sapphire and Steel. And then of course, all the cam-screens go out! Bwahahahahahhaha!

There are a few problems with the movie however.

There is a sequence where the main protagonist, Laura (played by BelĂ©n Rueda) is running along in the sea trying to get to the mouth of a cave before it is filled with the tide. In the next scene she is in a wheelchair with her leg in a cast... we are presumably supposed to believe that a minor tumble in the sea is the cause of this mystery ailment... but it’s a minor criticism I guess.

Also, you’re not going to be left puzzling over any twist ending in this one. As it becomes clear what the fate of Laura’s adopted son is you pretty much know what is going on. It’s been quite clearly telegraphed in sequences before the so-called reveal. But that really doesn’t mater either, to be honest, because it’s the point where it builds a conclusion onto this outcome that we are given a more satisfying ending than most films of this nature.

I say more satisfying than most because this film almost shares the same ending, at least in tone and story structure, to the wonderful Joseph L. Mankiewicz movie, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. That is to say, it is one of those movies which is unique in that the principal cast have to die to achieve the happy ending that their character arc is drawn inevitably towards. Laura has to die to earn the life she wants looking after the ghosts at the orphanage in much the same way that Lucy Muir has to eventually die to finally be reunited with her beloved Captain Daniel Gregg in the Mankiewicz movie.

A fine film then, and well worth a purchase to get into that scary headspace one sometimes requires. My only worry now for the ultimate fate of these characters is that Hollywood suddenly decides to remake it without realising that you need the mother and adopted son to die in order to reach the conclusion that these characters truly deserve.


  1. Great review! This movie really got to me when it first came out in theaters. I remember coming home to my dorm and needing to do laundry in the dank, deserted basement and being convinced that a terrifying scarecrow ghost child would appear out of nowhere. And that image of the lady who gets hit by the car stuck with me.

  2. Hi there. Many thanks for your kind words. I really wish I'd seen this at the cinema as the conditions I was watching this in were less than ideal. Lots of distraction happening in the background.