Friday, February 15, 2008

The Orphanage

A few friends and I were talking about this blog a month or so ago, and one asked me how I could do this - we liked the same stuff, but when he saw a movie, he just sees a movie, while I do, well, this. My glib answer was "practice", both in terms of seeing a lot of movies, maybe seeing odd ones that I wouldn't appreciate until later, and writing stuff down. Look at some of the early entries here. They're pretty short and probably more superficial.

There are a few things I've picked up and recognized I was learning at the time. The earliest I can remember is the Time magazine review of Terminator 2, where the writer points out that it suffers a bit because all the really good, thematically rich stuff comes early, while the end is "just" a fight in what Roger Ebert would later call a steam-and-heat factory. One of the best, and the shattered T2 reforming was close to the coolest damn thing ever at the time, but it wasn't as good as the start. Which would have been fine, he said, if this was a book - people remember the opening lines of books. But people remember the ends of movies.

So that's something I keep in mind - did I dislike the whole movie, or did it just make a bad last impression? The Orphanage, I think, is definitely a case of the latter. I started out writing about what a disappointment it was, but since you can't write much about the ending, I wound up writing about all the things I liked, and realizing that there were a lot of them. When it comes right down to it, I do think the good things outweigh how the director lets the end get away from him, but it just goes to show how much impact the end of a movie really does have.

El Orfanato (The Orphanage)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 January 2008 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run)

This was going to be a negative review; I came out deflated, and if I'd written this right away, that probably would have been the theme. There is a great deal about this film that's good, though, and it's worth remembering that - the film did provide ninety-odd minutes of solid entertainment, even if the other ten stand out later on.

In the prologue, we see a young girl by the name of Laura being adopted from the orphanage of the title; she seems to be the healthiest child there, with many others being sickly or crippled. Thirty years later, the now-grown Laura (Belén Rueda) and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have purchased the property, moving there with adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep) to re-open it as a facility for sick children. That Simón finds a new set of invisible friends initially concerns Carlos, but Laura is more concerned by elderly and nosy social worker Benigna (Montserrat Carulla), who makes a fine suspect when Simón vanishes during the facility's first open house.

The filmmakers do a lot very well. They found and created a great ghost-story location, as this orphanage has everything you could want - a large house in need of renovation, an enticing beach, caves, outbuildings, and even a lighthouse. The ugly secrets Laura and Carlos find out about the orphanage are shockingly nasty without resorting to simple gross-outs. Indeed, director J.A. Bayona does well by the "less is more" approach, not hitting the audience with much in the way of special effects for the first half; the simple sack with eyeholes over a child's head manages to be creepier than a creepy makeup or animation effect likely would be. When he does decide to go for the big jolts, they don't feel cheap at all, even if they do come from out of left field or are well-practiced.

Bayona and writer Sergio G. Sánchez also do a nice job of giving themselves the paranormal option early on - and indeed, making that the most likely explanation - but leaving themselves room for more conventional explanations. A scene with paranormal investigators and mediums is one of the most fair I've seen in this type of movie (fair in that, for story purposes, it doesn't make either the believer or skeptic characters look foolish). It's important, because much of the film is about Laura becoming obsessed and distraught over her missing child, and having "normal" concerns feel smaller and less important than the mystical ones would hurt it. Similarly, the single most important event in the movie has nothing to do with the supernatural, and could otherwise feel like Bayona and Sánchez had played a trick on the audience in a not-fun way.

Belén Rueda is given the job of anchoring the movie, and does a fine job. I love the way she relates to Roger Príncep as Simón; Laura clearly adores him above all else, but she's not perfect or one-note in her love. She gets irritated and angry at him, and even after we've learned that Simón is HIV-positive, her occasional frustration doesn't seem mean. By the second half of the movie, she's getting obsessed and desperate, and even though we're pretty sure that this is a ghost story by then, it still comes across as something approaching madness rather than her being the only sane person in the film.

It's not quite a one-woman show, but everyone else is clearly supporting her. Cayo gets "skeptical spouse" duties, but does a fine job of making Carlos as torn up as Laura even if he doesn't grasp at the supernatural explanation. Príncep maybe lays the cute on a bit thick as Simón, but it's not crippling. And Carulla makes Benigna menacing despite her advanced years.

Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for otherwise good movies to have trouble at the end, especially ghost stories, and The Orphanage falls prey to the "too many endings" problem. What's worse is that unlike movies that flail around, trying to find something that works or squeeze one more shock in, this movie hits the jackpot on the first try, finding the cruelest and most devastating revelation possible. What comes after does a good job of playing to the film's larger themes, true, but also softens the blow. And then, there's one last coda that tries to correct it in the other direction, to the point where the previous gut punch has been thoroughly muted.

And I've got to admit, that hurt the movie for me. If it had ended five minutes earlier, it's one of my favorite ghost stories ever. Instead, it's pretty good, worth checking out for what it does well, but well below its potential.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with four other reviews


Anonymous said...

nice post, i hope to watch this movie.

ian said...
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