Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Orphanage - movie review

From the DVD extras, Guillermo del Toro was the behind the scenes faerie godfather for this fantastic movie, offering advice and assistance every now and then (and of course offering his name as "Guillermo del Toro Presents ..."). But first time film director, J.A. Bayona and his neophyte crew did most of the heavy lifting on their own, and a bang-up job they did of it too.

The Orphanage (2007, Spanish with English subtitles) is the story of Laura, a former orphan who brings her husband and adopted son Simon, back to live in the now-abandoned orphanage she grew up in. Laura has nothing but happy memories of the orphanage and her five childhood friends, and she plans on opening her family's new home to another five or six special needs children so she can share the warmth and love she felt as a child. Adorable Simon is a special needs child too: HIV positive and needing daily medication to keep the illness under control. Laura and her husband have not told their son of his illness, nor have they yet told him that he is adopted. All he knows is that he is loved.

But love may not be enough in this incarnation of the orphanage. A strange old woman intrudes upon Laura and her family, and Simon, who already had two imaginary friends, says he's made six more friends: children who live in the orphanage, who will never grow up. Things get worse when Simon and Laura are playing a treasure hunt game (purportedly set up by Simon's imaginary friends, although his mother thinks he did it himself) and he finds the file saying he is adopted. Both upset, Simon and Laura have a fight. The little boy disappears during a party - also during which Laura is violently visited by a tiny being dressed in old-timey orphanage clothes and wearing a creepy mask made out of a burlap bag.

The rest of the movie is about Laura's heart-wrenching search for her son. After the police have no leads and no luck for nine months, she turns to a medium (Geraldine Chaplin! who knew Geraldine Chaplin could speak Spanish so fluently?!) who puts her on the right, if scary, path. "Seeing is not believing," says Geraldine, "It's the other way around [paraphrased]." Channeling all her love for Simon and her pain over his loss, Laura learns to believe and then to see - and in a touching and tragic turn, finally finds her boy.

This is an outstanding ghost story, on a par with The Others (which I liked quite a lot - Nicole Kidman notwithstanding). Tense, dark and unsettling (creepy children - eesh!), there were plenty of watching-through-the-fingers moments and jump scares; there is no gore or violence, which is apparently a departure from most Spanish horror genre movies. The youthful screenplay writer says he thought of it as Peter Pan from the mother's point of view, which would be terrifying: her children get kidnapped and taken to a place where they never grow any older; what would she do to find them again?

Don't be put off by the subtitles: the story pulls you in quickly enough that soon you won't realize they're there. El Orfanato is a movie that translates well on both sides of the Atlantic.

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