It’s difficult not to have preconceptions about a movie with the words ‘Guillermo del Toro presents…’ on the poster. The Mexican director of Cronos, Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth has such an assured, individual style that you’d be forgiven for thinking that a film produced by del Toro but directed by someone else would end up being little more than a pale imitation.
It’s to debutante Spanish director Juan Antonia Bayona’s credit, therefore, that The Orphanage doesn’t just ape del Toro’s unique narrative flair; it has a look and feel all of its own, and a plot that’s every bit as emotional and thought provoking as, say, Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone.
Belén Rueda plays Laura, who at the age of 37 moves back to the titular orphanage where she stayed as a child, hoping to re-open the place with her husband and their seven year old adopted son Simón (Roger Princep). It gradually becomes clear that something disturbing happened in Laura’s absence, and when Simón disappears – seemingly kidnapped by the mischievous spirits that frequent the place – she’s forced to delve into the past and discover the orphanage’s terrible secrets.
The Orphanage is a classy, intelligent horror story, and Bayona’s confident, lavish direction is matched by scriptwriter Sergio Sánchez’s masterful writing. Its exploration of Laura’s grief over the disappearance of her son resonates in a way that recalls the classic Don’t Look Now, and in a movie landscape choked with derivative genre trash, it’s refreshing to find a film that’s more keen to grip its audience with implied horror rather than gratuitous blood letting – it’s a movie in the tradition of Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others or the ghostly writings of MR James rather than the ugly excesses of Eli Roth – and that’s a very, very good thing indeed. And while The Orphanage does contain many elements and familiar imagery from the horror genre – the spiritual communication of Poltergeist, the creepy kids from The Shining, and even a Final Destination style death, for example – it uses them perfectly, in a way that conforms to the story’s own internal logic.
Performances are uniformly excellent throughout; Rueda is thoroughly convincing as a mother driven to the edge of sanity, her portrayal a sympathetic mixture of determination and childlike vulnerability. Roger Princep is similarly effective as Simón, playing the part with considerable pathos and an admirable lack of stage school precocity. Perhaps the biggest star of all though, is the orphanage itself – an imposing, sinister building full of shadows and disquieting sounds, it’s a place of palpable menace.
The Orphanage is more than worthy of del Toro’s patronage, and it’s a stunning debut for Bayona. It’s a film that spellbinds, from its clever opening credits sequence to its shattering, tragic climax. Like del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, it entertains and provokes thought in equal measure, and lingers in the mind long after the final scene fades to black.
Extras: The Orphanage‘s main feature is nicely complemented by a second disc of deleted scenes, interviews and brief documentaries. Most interesting is the revelation that the orphanage’s interior scenes were entirely studio based; thanks to the talent of the set makers, lighting crew and cinematographer, the fabricated interiors and real-world outdoor shots are blended with almost seamless perfection. Elsewhere, there’s a Q & A interview conducted by Mark Kermode that looks and sounds as though it was recorded in secret, and plenty of storyboard artwork.