When I decided to go and see The Orphanage I was unsure of what to expect. Considering the title and the setting, I was expecting a redux of the French film House of Voices. There are distinct similarities between the two, mainly in their similar setting and the central character experiencing strange goings on within the creepy confines.
However, there are some pretty big differences as well. The biggest difference is that The Orphanage comes complete with a high level of positive buzz swirling around it, something House of Voices did not have as it was unceremoniously dumped to DVD. Then there are the rest of the differences that can be summed up by simply stating that The Orphanage is just a better film from start to satisfying conclusion.
The film opens at some point in the past. A young girl, Laura, is in front of a large and creepy looking building and playing a variation on "Red Light, Green Light" with a group of youngsters. As the game goes on, we learn that the girl has just been adopted. Jump ahead some thirty years. Laura (Belen Rueda) is returning to the long shut down orphanage with her husband and young son, Simon. She has plans to turn the empty building into a home for special needs children. Laura wants to give back to the community based on what she received as a youngster.
Before long, strange things begin to happen. Simon develops friendships with invisible friends, things begin to go bump in the night, a strange woman roams the grounds, and Laura's sanity begins to crumble bit by bit. Everything culminates with the disappearance of Simon. Was he kidnapped? Did he run away? No one seems to know, and he left no trace.
Director Juan Antonio Bayona has taken this simple premise and turned it into a first rate thriller that will have you guessing until the very end. It is a stylish exercise in chills and suspense. With nice visual flair, you will detect touches of Pan's Labyrinth and The Others all while a genuinely unsettling atmosphere develops.
Is it a haunted house story? Or is it a tale of fracturing sanity? There are enough clues to play either way while never allowing for a conclusive answer. However you choose to look at it, you will not be able to look away as you slip further and further into the story. Personally, I have not made up my mind, although I am leaning towards the idea of fracturing sanity. The way it plays out and the end that it reaches hits beneath the skin and leads me to discount the supernatural element. Still, there is so much evidence that points towards the presence of ghosts that… aaargh. See what I mean? Perhaps not, but once you see the film you will see what I mean.
At the center of The Orphanage, with either interpretation, is Belen Rueda's Laura. Her performance is captivating. She perfectly plays the grief, anguish, panic, paranoia, and terror that Laura goes through following the disappearance of Simon. I could not help but be sucked into her journey, right through to the conclusion which sneaks up on you and lands like a punch to the gut.
The film moves forward at a languid pace, allowing the atmosphere to seep into your mind and literally drip off the frame. The development is at complete odds with what passes for horror and thrills in most Hollywood attempts. The Orphanage demands that you pay attention all the way through, and when you do, the end is all the more satisfying.
Bottom line. Simply fantastic. Beautifully acted, shot, and written, this film does not let go until the final shot has left the screen. I went in not knowing what to expect and discovered a film that was firing on all cylinders. The story is complete as is, yet has a lot of depth to allow you to expand upon the base, allowing for multiple interpretations. Very impressive.