Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #286
Number of Views: One
Release Date: May 20, 2007 (Cannes)
Country of Origin: Spain, Mexico
Box office: $78,638,987
Running time: 105 minutes
Director: J. A. Bayona
Producers: Mar Targarona, Joaquín Padro, Álvaro Agustín
Screenplay: Sergio G. Sánchez
Special Effects: David Martí, Montse Ribé
Visual Effects: Jordi San Agustín
Cinematography: Óscar Faura
Score: Fernando Velázquez
Editing: Elena Ruiz
Studios: Esta Vivo! Laboratorio de Nuevos Talentos, Grupo Rodar, Rodar y Rodar Cine y Televisión, Telecinco Cinema, Televisió de Catalunya, Warner Bros. Pictures de España, Wild Bunch
Distributors: Warner Bros, Picturehouse
Stars: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep, Mabel Rivera, Montserrat Carulla, Andrés Gertrúdix, Edgar Vivar, Óscar Casas, Mireia Renau, Georgina Avellaneda, Carla Gordillo, Alejandro Camps, Carmen López, Óscar Lara, Geraldine Chaplin
Suggested Audio Candy
Fernando Velázquez “The Orphanage Suite”
I have watched a lot of horror films over the years. We’re talking hundreds, if not thousands from all over the globe. Some make their impact through the implementation of triggered shocks and jolts, others use vivisectionist splatter as a way to involve their audience. One thing which is consistent is that very few have the ability to surprise me at this point. Nothing has changed, I still dim the lights, crank up the audio, and use solitude to help distance myself from refuge just like I did when I was an adolescent. However, there is precious little after all these years which stays with me after the credits have ceased rolling. I have desperately attempted not to become jaded and films such as Scott Derrickson’s terrifying Sinister and Lars von Trier’s disturbing Antichrist have still managed to work their way under my pelt after all is said and done but they are something of a rarity and often I am underwhelmed by events that would have had me clutching my bed sheets for dear life as a ten-year old.
Another film which resonated strongly with Keeper was Guillermo Del Toro’s surreal horror fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth. I found this deeply upsetting and incomprehensibly scary as it strayed from the well-trodden path and used its keen visual style to transport the viewer to another place entirely, one similar to the locale which exists only in our deepest imaginings. Del Toro’s whimsical nightmare was punctuated with moments of extreme violence and acts of cruelty which came from seemingly nowhere, leaving us breathless and mortified in equal measures. He had already proven his deft touch with The Devil’s Backbone and Cronos beforehand and Pan’s was possibly his finest hour, his most ambitious if nothing else. Whilst he has more recently broadened his scope and become involved in numerous large-scale American projects, the fact remains that he effortlessly possesses the ability to genuinely affect his addressee.
When I first learned of his endorsement for J. A. Bayona’s The Orphanage I was understandably rather excitable. His stamp of authenticity alone made it a very enticing prospect indeed although it has taken seven years for Keeper to actually gift it the opportunity to tell its tale. I’m unconvinced as to why this film sat on my shelf gathering dust for such a protracted period although I would hazard a guess that it was due to Pan’s Labyrinth leaving me heartbroken. But last night, with Halloween fast approaching, I finally decided to give his haunted house an overnight stay. It appeared the done thing, after watching plenty of visceral festive delights, here was a film which reportedly made its mark beneath the pelt, rather than through all manner of cheap scare tactics and unnecessary grue. It is no less brilliant than I had expected but is actually far more fantasy than out-and-out horror and not worthy of visitation should you possess the attention span of a carp. For those of us still present, The Orphanage is a rather exclusive ghost story.
First things first then, this should be filed in the same cubby hole as films such as Peter Jackson’s brace of Heavenly Creatures and The Lovely Bones and Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others. Bayona exhibits remarkable restraint throughout and is disinterested in cheapening his act, instead building tension which builds consistently throughout its 105 minute duration. He achieves this in a number of ways, none of which are ordinarily necessitated in films of its ilk. The first is sound although not, as you would be expecting, the overuse of ominous groans and of rattling chains. Silence plays its part and it is when the audio is entirely stripped back that our insecurities surface most. His visual style adds layer upon layer of disconcertment also and, once again, he isn’t looking to pummel us into submission with the usual Salmon-leaping antics, instead creating a home for our vacillation and populating it sparsely.
All of this would be fruitless without a central performance burly enough for us to hang our hats upon and, in Belén Rueda, he has a leading lady who convinces us of her authenticity unerringly. She achieves this, not only through the pitch-perfect delivery of lines, but with every facial expression and the most diminutive of gestures. Like any great actor, she uses every single muscle in her face to convey any trepidation and her remarkable performance acts as the glue which binds the whole story together. She is our eyes, our ears, our heavy heart; without her presence The Orphanage could so easily have been considered a routine ghost story but ends up being so much more. Considering the whole fable rests on her dainty shoulders and is viewed through her teary eyes, Rueda shows absolutely no signs of fatigue.
The story revolves around her return to the orphanage where her childhood memories lay. Now in her thirties and married to the faintly pessimistic Carlos (Fernando Cayo), Laura has largely fond memories of the place although can’t shake the feeling that a terrible fate befell her fellow classmates. This escalates as her infant son Simon (Roger Princep) makes all manner of imaginary friends upon their arrival and swears blind that his playmates are very much present, even though not readily discernible. At first she is dismissive, seemingly her husband’s skepticism has rubbed off on her, although it isn’t long before she is coerced into sitting up and taking notice of her son’s claims. As their situation becomes more and more desperate, she is forced to dig deep into her own past and revisit her own childhood if she is to have any hope whatsoever of solving the conundrum.
This is pivotal to us buying into Bayona’s vision. At its heart, The Orphanage is testament to a parent’s unconditional love and dogged endeavor in the bloody-minded pursuit of preserving her only child’s safekeeping. In this respect there are distinct parallels to The Lovely Bones, this isn’t the film to watch if searching for some light entertainment and your commitment to remaining vigilant throughout the film’s many quieter scenes is imperative should you hope to unravel the mystery alongside her. Like Jackson’s heartbreaking but hopeful saga, it isn’t an easy ride but Bayona isn’t offering an exercise in painting by numbers. Instead he asks only that we assume the roles of both parent and child and anybody with kids of their own or the ability to cast their mind back to less troublesome times in their life are well versed to glean the absolute maximum from The Orphanage. Others may find it a touch sedate and meandering.
For Keeper, the true beauty exists in the breakdown or, to be more precise, the film’s closing scenes. Bayona upholds the ambiguity and has the courage of his convictions to leave the film open to individual interpretation. Much of this depends whether you are wearing your parent or child hat, or indeed both, by the time The Orphanage closes its doors. It plays its hand close to its chest until this point and then reveals the full deck whilst showing nothing at all. This is where horror, if you can pigeon-hole this as such, has the ability to continue its work long after the final credits. As you are required to trek through 105 admittedly exquisitely shot and played minutes to reach the pay-off it makes sense that you receive your own party bag to remind you of your time in The Orphanage. Much like the perennial Pan’s Labyrinth before it, Bayona’s relative masterpiece carries the emotional heft to linger.
I must close by enlightening you to the method in my madness when awarding this film the nosebleed-inducing mark it receives. I still subtract a digit from Pan’s perfect ten but it walks away with a formidable score nonetheless. However, I may well never have the inkling and, it must be said, patience to return to The Orphanage; it represents something of a one-time deal despite the fact that, much like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, a second view would allow for far greater clarity. That’s my point entirely, it’s that bewilderment which makes it so foreboding first time out and here where the bond is formed. Bayona’s film is the ultimate Insidious anti-thesis and far less uneven as a direct result. Now who’s for a game of hide and seek?
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Dread Factor: 4/5
For the Dread-Heads: Doesn’t quite achieve top marks for fear as much of its impact is dependent on the addressee’s individual posturing. Should you take on the role of mommy bear, then there are few films more terrifying as her desperation is progressively augmented with such deft that we pray for a resolution which may only ever amount to clutching at straws. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare to consider outstaying the fruits of their labor and it is here that The Orphanage becomes a most disconcerting fable.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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