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  The Orphanage

Starring: Belen Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Princep, Geraldine Chaplin

Directed by: Juan Antonio Bayona
Produced by: Mar Targorona, Alvaro Augustin, Joaquin Padro
Written by: Sergio G. Sanchez

Distributor: Picturehouse


     The Orphanage first wants to convince the viewer that it’s a straightforward horror film, only to chill them before morphing into a more-substantive ghost-story. Director Juan Antonio Bayona assembles the movie as such in the hopes that it will succeed twofold by offering a scary first two acts and a thought-provoking third. To a certain extent, the approach is functionally employed: The Orphanage certainly represents a new breed of supernatural-themed filmmaking. The movie is, however, plagued by one major flaw. Because Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez tell the story in the fashion of trivial horror pictures for the film’s first eighty-minutes, the material doesn’t develop enough density to support its ambitious conclusion. In the end, The Orphanage feels more like an undercooked “idea movie” than the affecting experience that it would like to be. There simply isn’t enough of a foundation here to form a truly effective product around. 

     The film’s protagonist is Laura (Belén Rueda), a woman who is deeply passionate about the process of caring for children. She knows the traumas associated with growing up in an isolating-environment because she was an orphan herself. Laura’s strong feelings on the matter lead her to adopt a child, Simón (Roger Príncep), who she raises as her own. (In fact, she and her husband Carlos [Fernando Cayo] do not even tell the boy that he isn’t their biological son.) Additionally, Laura has made her family’s home in the very orphanage that she grew up in, planning to use it to raise sick and mentally-challenged kids.

     Problems at home arise, however, when Simón begins to develop imaginary friends, one of whom creepily wears a sack over his head. Simón’s belief in these figures becomes even stronger when he discovers that Laura and Carlos are not his real parents. Transfixed by his supposed hallucinations, Simón disappears completely, without a trace. Whether he was abducted or ran away himself is a mystery, but Laura suspects that a mysterious, elderly social-worker (Montserrat Carulla) who taunted her days before kidnapped the boy. After months of searching for Simón and finding no record of this social worker, Laura begins to believe that the disappearance was caused by something much more otherworldly. She postulates that Simón’s invisible friends were not imaginary at all, but ghosts of the orphanage’s past who stole him away from her.

     As The Orphanage’s plot thickens and Simón’s disappearance gets more complicated, it becomes very clear that the movie isn’t an average ghost-story or horror-film. As I previously mentioned, this comes to be especially problematic during the conclusion, which offers a pay-off that is left unsupported by the rest of the movie. This relates particularly to the character of Laura. As good as Belén Rueda is in the role, she cannot overcome the triviality of the character created by the one-dimensional horror set-up. The climax and conclusion of The Orphanage require the viewer to truly feel for Laura as she is thrust into a vulnerable, harrowed state in coming to terms with the supernatural nature of her son’s disappearance. This simply isn’t attainable because of the way the picture is assembled. The viewer doesn’t care any more for Laura than the average film-protagonist, and this lack of sympathy ultimately results in them feeling apathetic toward what is supposed to be a suspense-laden third-act.

     The Orphanage is not without its merits, however. Visually, the film is an absolute knock-out, oozing in style that achieves an eerie aura that restores some of the punch that its finish is missing. In fact, on a technical level, I wouldn’t be surprised if the picture was nominated for several Oscars. Cinematographer Óscar Faura’s glossy, shadow-filled cinematography gives the The Orphanage a very nice luminescence; each frame is intriguingly lit and photographed. Iñigo Navarro’s art direction and Maria Reyes’ costume design also both contribute to the densely-developed mood of the film. Even if the project ultimately fails due to its emotional distantness, it is considerably redeemed by its said keen sense of aesthetics. Not to mention, its narrative does carry impressive amounts of both conviction and ambition. For these select admirable traits, The Orphanage will ultimately make for a decent DVD-rental down the line.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 1.6.2008

Screened on: 12.31.2007 at the AMC 30 at the Block in Orange, CA.


The Orphanage is rated R and runs 105 minutes.

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