Orphans of the storm
THE ORPHANAGE/ EL ORFANATO Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. Starring Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep, Geraldine Chaplin, Montserrat Carulla 15A cert, lim release, 105 min IT IS a measure of the brilliance of this singular Spanish horror film – a jaw-dropping feature debut from Juan Antonio Bayona – that it calls to mind a dozen classics of the macabre while still remaining very much its own sinister beast.
On paper the picture reads a little like an amalgam of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. Laura (Belén Rueda), a drawn, intense woman in early middle-age, decides to return to the remote orphanage in which she grew up and run it as a home for mentally disabled children. Accompanying her are an agreeable husband (Fernando Cayo) and an adopted son (Roger Príncep), who has yet to learn that he is HIV-positive.
Unusual events soon overpower them. A strange old lady with bottle-glass spectacles turns up to ask surprising questions. The boy, who has always had an active imagination, claims that he has encountered lonely children in a cave on the neighbouring shoreline. About a third of the way through, something particularly awful happens and the picture suddenly veers towards territory previously occupied by Don’t Look Now.
It would be unfair to go into the tangled plot in any greater detail. It would also take up more space than we are allowed. The Orphanage, which carries the imprimatur of Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth, must be the busiest ghost picture in the history of the genre. Featuring half-a-dozen significant characters and four or five interweaving stories, the film, at times, looks in danger of taking on the quality of an anthology. Yet Bayona somehow brings it together in an admirably neat denouement.
As ever in such films, the characters take irrational decisions and their affairs are peppered with a few too many coincidences. But it’s unsettling to note that the circumstance I found most implausible on first viewing has since been rendered all too believable by appalling events in Jersey.
Oddly, despite the horrors referenced above, The Orphanage is ultimately a hopeful piece with a naive belief in the eternal power of love. Filmed in drifting takes by Oscar Faura, the picture ends with a final scene (let’s ignore the faintly idiotic explanatory epilogue) that has more to do with Peter Pan than Poltergeist.
This is not to suggest you should encourage infants to attend.
Coming home: Belén Rueda outside the orphanage