The Orphanage (El orfanato)

Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Writer: Sergio G. Sánchez
Year: 2007
Cast: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep

★★★☆☆

The Orphanage was produced by Guillermo del Toro and is director Juan Antonio Bayona’s first feature film. Thematically, it recalls del Toro’s own work, combining elements of childhood fantasy with material trauma. It is set in an unlikely orphanage, a grand old house complete with a stretch of immaculate beach, a disused lighthouse and a dark, mysterious cave. The central character, Laura (Belén Rueda), lived there as a girl, and has returned as an adult, along with her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and adopted son, Simón (Roger Príncep), to reopen it.

Ostensibly, The Orphanage is a ghost story. Simón, known for having imaginary friends, begins to play with orphaned ghosts from the past, leading them back into the house with a trail of seashells. The ghosts then take something precious from Simón, a set of coins, and lead him on a treasure hunt to find them, as well as to discover a secret that his parents have been keeping from him. The treasure hunt is the signature of the ghosts, a combination of malevolence and innocent play.

The Orphanage’s ghostly children look sinister, but how much substance do they have?

Starting with an unsettling scene, in which a group of handicapped orphans are welcomed to the house with a masquerade party, the ghosts become a more practical threat. They attack Laura and lock her in the bathroom, while Simón disappears as if into the air. Everything is set up perfectly, but, after this, the film begins to lose its way.

Briefly, it moves out of the orphanage, which is a misjudgement. The setting was never claustrophobic per se, but its removed atmosphere was vital to the film’s effect. An important plot development is made, which reveals the orphanage’s dark history, but this could perhaps have been made differently. There is also a scene in which a medium explores the building, which again is not at all bad, but is not entirely consistent with the rest of the film.

However, the main issue I have with The Orphanage is that, in the end, it shies away from being a ghost story at all, instead going down the route of psychological misdirection. This might have worked if the ghost storyline had been less effectively set up, or had an element of doubt. But the ghost story is what makes the film effective and doing away with it destroys the illusion. Taking the narrative as a embodiment of Laura’s psychological deterioration complicates rather than clarifies matters, and leaves the plot open to all kinds of questions. In my mind, the plot that is eventually implied makes very little sense at all. It is also detrimental to the emotional core of the film.

The Orphanage is at its best when at its most dramatic. It is a dark and atmospheric film, which makes good use of the setting and the childish imagination as a source of suspense. But, it falters towards the end, and ultimately becomes a frustrating experience, which should have been more fulfilling.

Rob Dickie

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