Sunday, January 13, 2008
Film Review: The Orphanage

I saw this film on Friday, and am in the unusual position of liking it very much, but not having any idea what to say about it.

I had only seen one trailer for this film, and it was rather vague. You can see it on YouTube if you're so inclined. It does not even approach describing what this film is really about. So, I knew next to nothing about The Orphanage going into it. I knew it was produced by Guillermo del Toro, I knew it was Spanish, and I knew it was supposed to be creepy.

There's a lot to be said for watching films this way - seeing a film you know little about, but that you expect to be very good. Not knowing a lot of plot details beforehand means that you aren't waiting for specific things to happen. You're able to let the story unfold in front of you, and unless you're one of those people who likes to stay three steps ahead of the plot and have it all figured out before the final act (I'm looking at you, E), it's easy to let the plot sweep you along, delivering surprises on the way.

When I rolled up to the cinema on Friday and ordered my ticket, the guy at the box office felt obligated to warn me that this was a subtitled film. I was taken slightly aback. Are there really that many backwards, small-minded people who can't be bothered to see a film that's not in English? I suppose there are...

The director of this film is Juan Antonio Bayona. I don't know much about him, and the IMDb is not forthcoming. I gather that he's sort of a protege of del Toro, and the Pan's Labyrinth influence is fairly evident here. Both films feature children who experience terrible things. **Pan's Labyrinth mild spoiler about to come up, so if you haven't seen it yet, please skip ahead to the next paragraph** In Pan's Labyrinth, there's a supernatural element to the plot which is almost certainly the figment of a child's imagination. In The Orphanage, the opposite seems to be true - supernatural things are almost certainly really going on.

As far as plot twists go, The Orphanage doesn't really have any. Not twists, but it does have several of those "oh crap" moments. You know, those moments in a film when you suddenly realize what's going on, and you think "oh crap." The best example of this little trick is probably how at the end of The Sixth Sense you realize that you've been played throughout the entire film. So, yeah, a few really good "oh crap" moments to be found here.

Here's another thing - The Orphanage has a few things in common with a fairly obscure book (Lost Boys) by a reasonably well known author (Orson Scott Card). The plots aren't identical, but are similar enough that I thought the film might be at least loosely based on the book. I can't find any record of that being the case, however. Both film and book reference Peter Pan, but the similarities I'm talking about go a bit further. Oh well.

The ending of the film is ambiguous, in the sense that you can take out of it what you've put in. I realize this doesn't make any sense. I'm trying hard not to give the game away. **Another Pan's Labyrinth spoiler here** Okay, you know how at the end of Pan's Labyrinth, you want to believe that the imaginary world is real, but deep down you know it's just a coping mechanism for this child who needed a way to handle the horrors of war? In The Orphanage, something happens to the main female character, and I think it can be taken the same way. Your own personal view of the ending is going to depend on whether or not you believe supernatural things were really happening all along. It seemed pretty evident to me as I watched the film that these things were in fact really happening, but you could just as easily take a more cynical view. And I really love films like that - films that don't spell everything out, but let you make your own mind up right until the end.

I highly recommend this film. It doesn't rip your heart out and stomp on it in quite the same way Pan's Labyrinth does (really, I defy even the manliest macho man with an icy heart of stone to watch Pan's Labyrinth without crying at the end), but I still had to wipe a wee tear away when it was over. I found the ending to be actually quite happy, in a strange, macabre sort of way.

In conclusion: if you have the chance to see this, see it. Keep an open mind. Don't try to figure things out ahead of the plot - just let the story happen, let yourself become absorbed in it. Never be put off by subtitles!!