Friday, January 18, 2008

The Orphanage: Creepy child's play

The Orphanage (2007) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for disturbing images and unexpected violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.18.08

Nervously unsettled women, oddly sinister children and creepy old estates have been a bad mix ever since 1961's The Innocents, director Jack Clayton's richly atmospheric adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.

Laura (Belén Rueda) decides that the only way to fully understand the ghostly
visitations plaguing her new manor home will involve returning the building to
the state it was in years earlier, when it served as an orphanage and she was one
of its young residents. to that end, she puts the dorm-style bedroom back
together and dons a uniform once worn by a staff member ... and waits.
More recently, we were reminded of this heady recipe's ability to raise goosebumps with Nicole Kidman's hypnotic "comeback" role in director Alejandro Amenabar's equally spooky 2001 chiller, The Others.

Enter producer Guillermo del Toro (director of Pan's Labyrinth), who has championed Spanish director J.A. Bayona's similarly suspenseful The Orphanage. Screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez certainly knows his movie history, because his storyline pays homage to both above-mentioned predecessors, while also borrowing elements from more conventional haunted house entries such as The Haunting and Legend of Hell House.

The result belongs to the school of less-is-more suspense, with Bayona quite content to turn the screws and let our imaginations do the worst. He's after tension, not pointless gore effects, although The Orphanage has a few unexpected shockers that'll make unprepared viewers levitate from their seats.

The moody, malignant tone is established immediately, during a clever opening sequence that shows young hands ripping away wallpaper to reveal the title credits; it's a simple effect, but it feels violently invasive, as if we're sharing secrets that weren't intended to see the light of day.

Which is precisely the point of Sánchez's narrative. Pay close attention to the details, because nothing is wasted along the way.

The film begins with a flashback, as a 7-year-old girl named Laura is introduced as one of the most popular residents at an orphanage by the ocean. She's a happy child, well-regarded by the staff and cherished by the other orphans, all of whom she loves like brothers and sisters.

No surprise, then, that such a well-adjusted child would be adopted, leaving all her friends behind.

Three decades pass, at which point the story officially begins. Laura (Belén Rueda), now happily married to Carlos (Fernando Cayo), has returned to her childhood home. The manor was abandoned years ago; Laura and Carlos, a doctor, plan to reopen it as a center for sick and disabled children. Its setting, adjacent to the ocean and all that fresh salt air, also should be beneficial to their own child, 7-year-old Símon (Roger Príncep), who doesn't know that he's a) adopted, and b) HIV-positive.

Judging by the glances exchanged by viewers, as these bits of exposition were unveiled, we all had the same thought: Traipsing around an abandoned old orphanage just can't be a good plan. Haven't Laura and Carlos ever been to the movies?

"Pack your bags," murmured my Constant Companion, "and leave now."

No kidding.

Símon, with an established history of chatting with imaginary friends, quickly makes a new one on the estate: Tómas, a little boy who apparently appears only to him. They play a treasure-hunt game that Símon excitedly shares with his mother: an intricate chase through the house and grounds, involving odd little clues and unusual objects that lead from one to the next, until — as Laura's eyes open wide in dismay — the boy finds the key that unlocks the drawer holding his medical history.

And already seems to know the file's contents.

Ghostly intervention ... or merely a precocious and observant child, who has grown too old for such secrets to be withheld?

Just as was the case for Deborah Kerr's character in The Innocents, Sánchez keeps things ambiguous for as long as possible.

The delicate tightrope act required of such stories demands that we remain sympathetic with the female protagonist: If the performance becomes too shrill or unhinged, the unspoken agreement between story and viewer is lost.

And this is a slight problem here. Rueda's Laura arrives with obvious mental baggage; she often seems just one short step away from a nervous breakdown. (We've no idea why.) When this story's crisis erupts, and Laura hears strange bumps in the night, and sees ghostly children who aren't really there, I never really bought the degree to which Carlos — a doctor, remember — simply tolerates his wife's hyper-anxious and increasingly unstable behavior, as if he finds it the most natural thing in the world.

The manor appears to be haunted; Laura claims to need the help of its little spirits, if she's to solve the growing mystery.

Carlos puts up with it all, even as days and weeks turn into months.

That's ... unlikely.

This extended timeframe doesn't really work, particularly in light of what occurs during the film's climax; Sánchez's story would seem far more reasonable if it took place during only a few days (and there's no reason it couldn't).

Additionally, the intrusion of a team of investigating psychics — that nod to The Haunting and Legend of Hell House — is a time-wasting distraction that doesn't accomplish anything. Laura already knows what she feels and believes; everybody else refuses to acknowledge the quite palpable evidence of supernatural visitations. Carlos and a visiting police psychologist wind up looking and sounding like stubborn idiots.

Although these plot points become clumsy at times, Bayona compensates well with atmosphere and the judicious use of cinematographer Oscar Faura's tension-inducing tracking shots through the orphanage's many darkened hallways, closets, rooms and (of course!) concealed passageways. The occasional and unexpected glimpses of children-who-shouldn't-be-there also are quite disturbing, and we can bet that Sánchez will have a goosebump-inducing way to resurrect the hide-and-seek game that 7-year-old Laura plays, during the prologue.

Rueda, although overworking her character's instability, makes a persuasively resolute protagonist; she's quite believable as a mother bear determined to protect her cub no matter what, even if it means accepting the impossible. Cayo's Carlos, on the other hand, remains annoyingly stone-faced; we're intended to believe that this good man is weighing complex issues, but his eyes simply don't communicate that much.

Cayo's only effective scene with Rueda comes early on, when Laura and Carlos enjoy a loving duet on the piano. As a result, in terms of good story construction, I kept expecting Carlos to return to that keyboard at a suitably dramatic moment, but it never happened.

Geraldine Chaplin, of all people, pops up as the empathetic head of the team of spiritualists; this sequence may be a time-waster, but Chaplin brings considerable conviction to the drama. She absolutely sells the moment.

As was the case with The Others, The Orphanage builds to a revelation that's clever, quite surprising and profoundly melancholic. Playing along will depend on patience and a willingness to embrace Bayona's methodical approach; the payoff is worth the journey, even if Sánchez tries to cram a few too many disparate elements into his narrative.

Besides, it'll certainly make you jump a few times.

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