The Orphanage

Juan Antonio Bayona/Mexico-Spain 2007

The marketing plan for Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage couldn’t be more obvious. Picturehouse wants desperately for it to be viewed as the Pan’s Labyrinth of 2007, positioning it with the same end of the year release date and Guillermo del Toro’s name planted prominently above the title, in the same producer’s capacity that a few years back allowed Quentin Tarantino to bring us Hero. Then there’s the obvious fact that the movie’s another ghost story set in Spain, with ethereal imagery, a haunted setting and childhood looming large.

Such comparisons, however obviously invited, only denigrate Bayona’s work. Best to leave del Toro’s masterpiece be and consider the separate animal here. It’s a lesser film, to be sure, more reliant on genre conventions than intense emotions. But, it proves a consistently adept piece, with the first time feature filmmaker spinning an effective story out of some technical superiority, an entertaining set piece or two and the compelling presence of lead actress Belén Rueda.

She plays Laura, returned with her husband (Fernando Cayo) and young son Simón (Roger Príncep) to the coastal estate that once housed the orphanage she called home as a girl. Near the start of Sergio G. Sánchez’s screenplay they make clear their intention to open a home for disabled boys and girls, in an apparent attempt on Laura’s part to recreate for others the idyll the orphanage afforded her troubled youth. However, things have not gone well for Simón since the move. He claims to have accrued several imaginary friends, and after an excursion to a dark cave near the shore he emerges with another. Subsequently, his personality starts to shift. He directs particular antagonism towards his mother. Then, suddenly, he refuses to leave his room the day of a lawn party for the new children, and when Laura goes to look for him, he’s gone.

Bayona employs a predictable, though undeniably well put together set of filmmaking techniques, while the plot never treads in an especially surprising direction. Scenes circle through the same scenarios, as the meticulously placed camera and dissonant chords on the soundtrack repeatedly denote the ominous presence that haunts the house. The director seems perennially on the precipice of a boo moment, as he loves isolating his lead actress amidst the creaky floors, wood paneled foyers and neo-Victorian décor. Yet, he handles the ghost story conventions with skill, adeptly increasing tension by keeping Laura’s antagonists largely in the shadows and concentrating instead on her troubled reactions to threats both real and perceived. The movie remains consistently engaging because Bayona immerses us so fully in Laura’s subjectivity.

The success of The Orphanage hinges entirely on the strength of the craft on display, so it’s fortunate that the filmmaker demonstrates such an affinity for the genre. The quality of a director’s work with ordinary material very often provides the best gage of his talents and on the basis of the movie’s one superb sequence alone, in which a psychic played by Geraldine Chaplin attempts to communicate with the spirits in the house, Bayona adeptly grasps the arts of staging, cutting and incorporating sound design. Despite the occasional moment of transcendence and some periodically effective emotional manipulation the material remains locked into familiar standards. The director brings them alive.

© 2007 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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