Following on from Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro went onto put his efforts towards producing El Orfanato. Whilst a single inspired effort is one thing, lightning very rarely strikes twice. El Orfanato was therefore a film awaited with baited breath. This time along with the directing help of Juan Antonio Bayona on his directorial debut, the pair of them set about trying to follow one quite remarkable film with another.
When The Orphanage was first screened here in the UK I travelled to the only picture house that was showing it locally, being 20 miles away from me. I don't do that kind of thing very often I can assure you. Pan's Labyrinth had left a vivid mark on me; so surreal was that movie. The Orphanage was therefore one World Cinema film that I simply wasn't going to miss on a big screen in a hurry. It had wowed the festival critics the world over and I wanted to see for myself what the fuss was about this time around.
The Optimum Home Entertainment release in the Blu-ray format is of course a very welcome offering but there are times when the smaller screen can do much to lessen the impact of many a film. I sincerely hoped that was not going to be the case here.
What can be so rewarding about World Cinema is that films of this ilk all retain common and fundamental elements about them. There is something universally accepatble within all such successful foreign films. A storyline that transcends both culture and language barriers to strike a chord very close to our very own humanity; an immediate attachment. The other thing is that due to the language barrier, the films tend to be slightly slower paced and as a result tend to absorb the viewer into the proceedings slightly more. The Orphanage is no different a film. It's linguistically Spanish based, the film benefits from it and the style of filmmaking is very much a classical throwback to one of yesteryear. It stands refreshingly polarised, a world away from today's quick fix of in-your-face Hollywood.
To describe The Orphanage as a pure horror would be quite wrong and a major disservice to its screenwriter Sergio G Sanchez. In many ways it's at best a psychological thriller that hones in on some of humans most natural instincts and fears. When it comes to human relationships, paternity is one of the most natural and incredibly vulnerable phases of life that many can be blessed with. Parenthood for those that already have children will know, brings with it a great responsibility and the overwhelming obligation to give shelter to our dependent little ones. For we all know that the world around us can be a vast and cruel place.
Inevitably, many people also feel that should anything ever happen to our loved ones, the guilt that would remain would become our very own. Why that is I'm not quite sure. Maybe it's because we subconsciously feel we are actually a product of our own environment - whether we like it or not ? Without delving into the depths of childhood pathology it is fair to say that we are all in some way or other conditioned by our childhoods. Whether it's good or bad, either way it helps to shape a conviction and direction in later life. There are those then that go onto develop convictions to help them rid themselves if their past. They feel that they must live their own lives in some shape or form through that of their children. I suppose it's a way to sanctify your own childhood by trying to right the wrongs that you've had to experience. Laura Sanchez (Belen Rueda) is one of those people.
The Good Shepherd Orphanage once gave shelter to Laura Sanchez. It was an orphanage that catered for both able-bodied children as well as disfigured and disabled children. Laura was one of the luckier ones (she had no disfigurement) in that a family from the orphanage adopted her at a tender age. She left behind her friends who were left to spend their lives there in the hope that some other loving person would also eventually come along to adopt them as well.
Such a difficult childhood, would of course shape many an adult and her haunting conscience eventually brings her back. Laura Sanchez had never returned to the orphanage and she knew not of whatever had happened of her friends. However, she doesn't come back in search of them. She actually comes back to buy the old and disused mansion many years later.
Now into her 30's and married to a doctor by the name of Carlos (Fernando Cayo) they have no direct children of their own. However those that have at some point been in need for themselves recognise the need in others. The couple have therefore adopted a little boy by the name of Simon (Roger Princep). If being foster parents wasn't enough, they have now chosen to buy the old orphanage not simply to live in but with the view to re-open it and help yet more needy children.
The Orphanage itself is a classical grand gothic styled building. It has many rooms and the complimentary surrounding grounds. There's no getting away from it, it has the quintessential and stereotypical haunted house look and feel to it. It's also based near the sea and whilst it's a very idyllic backdrop to help bring up troubled children, it's also rather creepy. Everything is now set in contemporary Spain and whilst the building itself has been disused and un-lived in for all those years, the years have actually been quite kind to it. With a bit of restoration effort the house soon begins to come back to life.
It isn't long before moving in that a young frightened Simon becomes quite difficult to handle. Although he gradually takes to the mansion, he also begins to hear strange voices in the house and starts to play along with newfound 'imaginary' friends. Much of it is put down to him being an only child and due to the medication that he is on. Simon is a diagnosed HIV positive carrier and is on some pretty strong medication to help keep his virus at bay. Both Laura and Carlos are incredibly sensitive to his needs but they have never actually told Simon about his illness. Whilst they do wish to tell him some day, he is still quite young and it's a difficult matter to address.
Strangely Simon is somehow led to find out about the truth behind his illness through his imaginary friends. Having make believe friends is one things but it's quite disturbing that a child feels that they are so real. It's at this point that the couple begin to feel that all is not quite as it should be in the house. It's also here that Bayona gradually draws the audience into his intricately detailed craft of suspense and terror.
Whilst Carlos remains sympathetic to ongoing matters it is the bond between Laura and Simon that takes a hold of proceedings. She becomes gradually drawn further and further into Simon's world and forced to play his weird games. Although she cannot see past or hear his imaginary friends, she senses an attachment to his world of make believe simply by virtue of her very own childhood experiences. Now I must say that Belen Rueda is a complete revelation and she plays the part of Laura with absolute sincerity and deserved aplomb. I can assure you that this is no bit part and as an actress she has truly thrown herself into playing this role. She remains for the most part utterly convincing.
However when it comes to suspense, there are no major surprises at this point and it is all pretty much textbook storytelling. That's not to say that's a bad thing. For the most part the story tends to string you along with a case of is it or is it not so? It befits the style of the movie and it works. Bayona chose to play it safe and chose to simply drip feed you every facet of doubt and suspense in order to build towards a beautiful crescendo. In actual fact all of this develops so frightfully well that the bond between Laura and Simon becomes quite intense and incredibly gripping. It draws you in, takes a hold of you and simply never lets go; continuing to wrench every last ounce of tension and nerve out of you.
Although the crux of the story continues to revolve around the relationship between mother and child it's not at all limited to that. When Simon mysteriously goes missing at the house warming party, Laura goes on to discover much darker secrets about the house. All of these aspects play their part within the context of the movie and the story plunges you into the unravelling of the mystery behind all the suspense that went before it.
The parents amongst you will sit very uncomfortably and see all their very worst fears unfold. Both Sergio Sanchez and Bayona have ensured that every nail of fear is hammered deeply home. Believe me, every nail hits the spot and it sends a sobering chill down your spine. You are simply left to empathise with Laura's loss of Simon, her grief, her despair and her ensuing depression. It is real world in both touch and feel and that's all the more reason why the scares hit pertinently home.
The second half of the movie gathers pace gracefully and more so in the latter third. However the pacing of suspense remains nothing short of perfection throughout. Furthermore a psychologically arresting film has to have reasoning behind it and without it the whole purpose of movies such as these is defeated. It's the nature of the unravelling of secrets that is so thoroughly engrossing and I'm sure it will continue to satisfy even the most inquisitive among you.
After six months of searching for Simon, Laura's desperation grows to the point where she will resort to anything to hold onto some kind of hope of ever finding him alive. More than anything else she's searching for closure and simply has to know what has happened to him and why he disappeared. This leads to an absolute tour-de-force chapter in the film where she hires a medium by the name of Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin) to visit the orphanage. The whole séance episode is spooky, spine chilling and truly mesmerising. If there are any doubts in your mind as to the worthiness of this movie they will be dispelled after this point of the film.
Everything that has been so intricately woven together by Bayona is then unwoven in as exacting standards. The tragedy, the horror and the suspense builds you up into a petrified state. The twists and turns of the revelations resonate with a horrible and haunting truth. Although the movie in many ways itself was not deliberately designed to deliver such profound tragedy and consequence, it is the result that counts.
As you would imagine there is of course far more embedded in there towards the end and thankfully none of it is ridiculous or far-fetched. Of course you will have to see it for yourself to appreciate the outcome and the significance of how the pieces fit the jigsaw.
In many ways The Orphanage will be instantly likened by many to 'The Others'. However, I feel it is a far, far better movie and certainly a class above. There hasn't been a film like it in years and even though it enters a crowded genre, it achieves the most rare of things. The Orphanage satisfies the viewer as a movie worthy of note. Highly recommended viewing.
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