Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Orphanage

Oh boy. I hate when this happens: re-watching a movie I remember liking very much the first time and discovering it doesn't resonate as much as it once did. That's not to say The Orphanage (2007) is a bad movie. It's handsomely filmed, well acted, and has a few creepy moments, but overall, it feels over long and plays less like a thriller and more like a supernatural mystery.

The Orphanage arrives "presented" by Guillermo del Toro, whatever that means. How much direct involvement he had in the production is anyone's guess, though it certainly could pass as something he'd make: child ghosts, lurking secrets from the past, the thin line between fantasy and reality. It could be seen as a companion piece to del Toro's Pan Labyrinth, which arrived in theater's the previous year.

But while del Toro focused on the fantasy world from a child's point of view in his movie, director J.A. Bayona takes a step back shows the supernatural from the adult's perspective. Children are more inclined to believe in monsters, fairies, and magical worlds hidden beneath the veneer of our perception, but adults are more closed minded, more set in their ways, and more blind. So while del Toro gave us a phantasmagoria of fantastical imagery as his child hero traverses back and forth between worlds, Bayona's adult heroine is more limited in her interactions with the supernatural, and the result is a quieter, more somber, more subtle movie.

Laura (Belen Rueda) and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have purchased the old orphanage she lived in for a time during her childhood, intending to fix it up and turn it into a home for children with special needs. As they go about the preparations, Laura doesn't pay too much attention to her adoptive son Simon (Roger Princep), who is HIV positive, when he starts saying he has new friends she can't see. She brushes it off as him having an overactive imagination, but she comes around when Simon disappears.

There are moments when The Orphanage approaches being truly frightening before it pulls back. At one point, Laura is in bed trying to sleep when she senses Carlos laying down next to her, and she proceeds to give a sad monologue about how small Simon was when they adopted him and how much she loves him. Suddenly, there's movement behind the bathroom door - an intruder. The door opens and it's Carlos. Who was lying next to Laura? A creepy setup, however, leads to an anticlimactic payoff when Laura springs out of bed, turns on the light, and sees no one there. Nothing else happens. Kind of spooky but not as intense as it could have been, much like the movie at large.

The thing is Pan's Labyrinth had a number of compelling plot lines and narratives: the Fascist stepfather, the pregnant mother, the ongoing Spanish Civil War, the guerrillas in the forests, and of course the little girl's encounter with the fairies and monsters. The Orphanage has a much more limited scope in terms of narratives and character, and it doesn't feel like much gets accomplished. At times, the movie feels overlong and padded. I'm all for a meticulous, patient pace, especially in a ghost story, but The Orphanage feels too drawn out at times. The secret of the house - a crime from the past and a bloody tragedy - is revealed long after the nominal villain of the piece is removed, and the way it's positioned is dramatically unsatisfying.

Some of these problems might stem from  my seeing this again. Before I knew the twists and surprises of the movie, I found The Orphanage really creepy and ominous, but knowing ahead of time what the reveal is, to a degree, the threat and menace hanging over the film dissipates the second time around. It's not a total shaggy dog story, but it's hard to be afraid knowing the ghosts are more mischievous than evil.

I won't dispute the craft of the movie. The acting is strong, especially by Rueda, and the production design and cinematography are outstanding. My favorite shot in the movie occurs when Laura and Simon explore a cave by the beach, and the camera is inside, showing their tiny, shadowy figures against the sky and dwarfed by the massive outcroppings of rock. It shows how precarious and fragile life is against the backdrop of death and the unknown.

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