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  • 15
  • Drama, Horror
  • 2007
  • 105 mins

The Orphanage

Film4 The Orphanage


In Juan Antonio Bayona's ghost story debut, an old orphanage remains a playground for its former occupants


"Your friends will miss you a lot, Laura." So the little girl is told at the beginning of Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage, as she is taken away from her playmates for adoption. Years later the adult Laura (Rueda) is drawn back to the now empty orphanage with husband Carlos (Cayo) and adopted, HIV positive son Simón (Príncep), with hopes to start up a new home for children with special needs. Her past there, though interrupted, still has a grip on her.

Others, too, seem unable to leave the orphanage. And then Simón's imaginary friend Tomás (Casas) puts in a real and frightening appearance at a reception party. Shortly afterwards, Simón vanishes without trace. After months of frantic searching, a desperate Laura turns to elderly medium Aurora (Chaplin), convinced that Simón is still alive. Laura is told that the answer she seeks lies in the orphanage and its tragic history.

It may be full of closeted skeletons, buried secrets and ghostly revenants, but what really haunts The Orphanage is the palpable presence of its producer Guillermo Del Toro. Not only is the film produced by Del Toro, but it bears more than a passing resemblance to Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone (2001). Its overt referencing of the 'Peter Pan' story aligns it with Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006), which similarly filtered horror through a fairytale frame.

This Del Toro connection is both a blessing and a curse for The Orphanage. Bayona has admitted that without Del Toro's backing his film would never been made, and the presence of the name will attract crowds. Yet all this emphasis on Bayona's benefactor (and kindred spirit) invites comparisons that are not always to the younger director's advantage.

Both Del Toro and Bayona are undoubtedly genre directors, but while the former uses genre as a springboard for much broader ideas about power, politics and history, no such intrusion of allegory is accommodated by The Orphanage.

The only resonances to be found here are the echoes of earlier haunted house movies, from The Innocents (1961) to The Haunting (1963), from The Changeling (1980) to Poltergeist (1980), from Stir Of Echoes (1999) to The Others (2001). The Orphanage does explore themes of madness, maternity, loss and grief, but these are well-established standards of the ghost story. This is a deeply conventional film, never looking beyond its generic confines to see if there might be another, more real world lurking on the other side.

Even if The Orphanage steadfastly refuses to deviate from formula, it is still a consummate piece of filmmaking. Beautifully shot with a captivating central performance from Rueda, a well-managed building of tension, and two or three genuinely heart-stopping frights, the film admirably opts for evocative atmosphere over gore and special effects, with much of the horror merely suggested by Oriol Tarrago's excellent sound design.

Some may find that Fernando Velázquez's score tries too hard to pull at the heartstrings and the film's ending over-sentimental. Yet there are enough melodramatic flourishes to make the fates of its characters as moving as they are frightening. The Orphanage will certainly keep you on the edge of your seat - even if it leaves you with little of substance to take away.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Belén Rueda, Roger Príncep, Fernando Cayo, Mabel Rivera, Andrés Gertrúdix, Geraldine Chaplin, Edgar Vivar, Alejandro Campos, Montserrat Carulla
  • Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
  • Screen Writer: Sergio G Sánchez
  • Producer: Guillermo Del Toro, Mar Targarona, Joaquín Padro, Álvaro Augustín
  • Photographer: Óscar Faura
  • Composer: Fernando Velázquez

In a nutshell

An astoundingly well-made debut - even if The Orphanage is ultimately as empty as it is haunted.

by Anton Bitel

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