We Have Always Lived in the Orphan Age
At the 2007 New York Film Festival post-press screening Q&A, it was announced that The Orphanage/El Orfanato had been selected the day before as Spain’s Oscar candidate. Although at first read it looks like a slick if routine horror flick, director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez claim it’s also a psychological study harboring some level of “satiric connection.”
Citing David Lean’s melodramas, as well, Bayona humorously acknowledged his debt and gratitude to mentor of fifteen years Guillermo del Toro, to whose “lots of suggestions we didn’t pay much attention” and whose The Devil’s Backbone and last year’s NYFF closing night feature Pan’s Labyrinth were brought up. The fact is, many dark old house titles, Spanish and otherwise, readily come to mind, for this current entry is not innovative, though its atmospheric setting and the performance of Belén Rueda are impressive.
There was much press conference talk of, of course, fantasy, and of the presence of exaggerated past memory within the present, of choosing alternative “roads to happiness,” of adult responsibility, fear of the new and guilt over the old, and, centrally, of the finality of death as contrasted with “the cruelty of hope,” the latter deadeningly imaged in a brief meeting of an Association of Those with Disappeared Loved Ones.
Shot in Asturias’ Llanes, on the little-publicized rainy and rugged Costa Verde, the action reverts to actual conditions of thirty-forty years ago, when malformed children and adults were hidden from sight, not infrequently “disappearing” as if from the face of the Earth. In the beautiful manor house now the Good Shepherd Orphanage, young Laura’s life is, in recollection, idyllic as natural leader of some half-dozen kids while, unknown to most, a deformed other, Thomás, is confined to the basement during the brief service there of his mother.
Placed with a family at the age of seven, grown Laura (Rueda) returns thirty years later to refurbish the place into a home for some half-dozen kids with special needs. Nothing is revealed of the woman’s outside life, including why she is biologically childless, but this is a new beginning for her, doctor husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and precious son Simón (third-grader Roger Príncep). Unaware that he is adopted and, for reasons extraneous to plot, HIV-positive, the solitary seven-year-old cannot find his two imaginary playmates but announces that, in a beach cave exposed at low tide, he has made a new boy friend.
All appearing only to Simón, this Tomás is joined by five more “gay and innocent and heartless” boys and girls, who tell bizarre tales and play games that smack of snooping, cruelty and clues in a sinister treasure hunt. Meanwhile, a bogus social worker in thick glasses has shown up in the rain, inexplicably to reappear much later in a mountain village--Benigna Escobeda (Montserrat Carulla), Tomás’ mother and a presage of Simon’s disappearance during an inauguration-day party.
A rational man of medical science, Carlos is immersed in the logistic nightmare of parents everywhere who lose a child to some fate unknown. His office walls plastered with section maps, reward posters, photos and tips, his is the official route of police, police psychiatrist Pilar (Mabel Ribera) and public appeals. Propped by pills and plagued by visions and mishaps physical and mental, Laura plunges the other way, into what may be gruesome mysteries of the original institution between her own adoption and its subsequent closing, even agreeing to an elaborate pseudo-technological arrangement for psychic-medium Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin).
Not to reveal the outcome, avowedly a type of “happy ending” unusual to the genre, it is enough to record that, real or imagined, strange happenings pile one upon another. But like unsuccessful 1972 and ’92 visualizations of Henry James’s suggestive The Turn of the Screw, and in contrast to the excellent 1961 Deborah Kerr-Michael Redgrave interpretation, The Orphanage tritely twists too many specious screws too often, and it depends heavily on creaking woodwork and hinges, slammed doors and secret panels giving onto basement stairs, on thunderclaps, crypts, apparitions, sinister children and mental instability.
Bayona and hard-working Rueda (who lost nine kilos during filming) indicated afterwards that fantasy is the way some people deal with reality and its fears, but though the film moves towards one of the classics of child/adult-fantasy/allegory literature and is technically crisp, in the end it is just another house-on-the-hill/mother-issues tale.
(Released by Picturehouse and rated “R” for some disturbing content.)