Dir. Juan Antonio Bayona, Mexico/Spain, 2007, 105 mins, subtitles
Review by Jean Lynch
Producer Guillermo Del Toro was so convinced that The Orphanage would be spectacular that he chose to ‘present’ it to the audience, to fully endorse the debut feature of this new young Spanish director, Juan Antonia Bayona. It seems that the man who brought us the equally splendid Pan’s Labyrinth has impeccable taste.
On par with Amenabar’s The Others, The Orphanage is a ghost story in the finest tradition, relying not on gore nor special effects but on some of the most chillingly effective suspense ever committed to celluloid. It tells the story of Laura (Rueda) who has returned with her family, husband Carlos (Cayo) and son Simon (Princep), to the orphanage where she spent her own happy childhood, with the intention of once again turning it into a joyful home for sick and disabled children. However, the house has been left unattended for over 30 years, aquiring a sad air, and it disturbs Simon. Prone to imaginary friends, he discovers a new one – a young boy called Tomas – in the cave on the beach, and invites home. Before long, more new friends have arrived, all only visible to Simon. Despite Carlos’ assurances, Laura is uneasy as the boy insists on spending all his time in this imaginary world. Finally, on the day of the official opening of the orphanage, Simon is lost and cannot be found. In her ongoing efforts to find her son, Laura has to re-examine the ghosts of her own past, and unearths some terrifying discoveries, treading an ever-growing precarious line between reality and something beyond the normal, something supernatural.
There is something incredibly eery and spine-chilling about The Orphanage. Much of the tension develops through the use of sound, with music used very sparingly. At the beginning we hear birds chirping merrily but as we build towards the film’s climax their shrieking cries grow jarring, and seem to echo the high pitched wails of children crying, and the nearby sea and ever present wind enfold the action, often discordant and abstract, and playing on the subconscious, making us question reality, the way one does late at night when you hear a noise and ask if it was just the wind.
Added to this is the superb cinematography. There is a steely greyness that is softened by delicate lighting, and the film makes good use of the interplay between light and dark, all the time evoking otherworldliness but yet managing to look very real, almost documentary style at times. The camera seems to creep around the frame, drawing us in with it.
Belen Rueda gives a particularly moving performance as Laura, intelligent, afraid but determined all at the same time, and Princep as Simon is excellent too. There’s also a quite brilliantly unsettling role for Geraldine Chaplin as the medium Aurora.
Besides the scarier aspects of the film, The Orphanage is also about love and loss, and – if you are that way inclined – invites you to consider the relationship between science and the supernatural, where one ends and the other begins, or if they’re one and the same, and to even question your own beliefs.
Haunting in every sense of the word, The Orphanage is up there with the aforementioned The Others along with The Innocents and, indeed, The Haunting as being everything a good ghost story should be but is original enough to deliver more than a few surprises.
Juan Antonio Bayona is definitely a director from whom we’ll be hearing more.