Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Suffer Little Children

The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2008)

NB: This review contains significant plot spoilers.

I am at something of a loss as to why this film has been so extravagantly praised. Directed by debutant Juan Antonio Bayona but, somewhat conveniently, produced by Mexican horror maestro Guillermo Del Toro, it’s a watchable, occasionally chilling horror film. Like many films before it, it exploits its audience’s very human emotions towards children – both their fear and lack of comprehension of their private worlds, and their desire to protect them. Whilst it certainly induces the odd shiver or expression of surprise, it adds nothing particularly new to this genre, and in fact relies very heavily on a set of conventions and clich├ęs.

I am entirely prepared to suspend my disbelief when it comes to the existence of ghosts and also to the possibility of communication between the living and the dead. What I found much more difficult to accept with this picture was that any woman that had grown up in care in a creaky old orphanage (with very institutional facilities) could possibly ever want to return to live in that building as an adult. But so it is – we must accept that Laura, her docile husband Carlos and their young adopted son Simon have bought this old orphanage with the intention of admitting a new group of children and reopening it.

Simon has congenital HIV but is blissfully unaware of both his illness and his adopted status – at least until he starts receiving messages from a series of imaginary friends. Initially dismissive, Laura becomes increasingly intrigued by this private world, but not concerned enough to act when Simon demands that she visit Tomas’ private house. Fairly predictably, tragedy strikes when Simon disappears during a welcoming party for the new orphans, and the stage is set for a psychological and emotional horror story that is prevented from reaching its potential by a series of over-familiar tropes.

Almost everything in this film is taken from the Hitchcock textbook – the old isolated gothic building by the sea, the disused lighthouse, the creaky or slamming doors, the chill gusts of wind, creaking staircases, the ominous footsteps – even the sinister elderly social worker who visits the house in the days before Simon’s disappearance could be Norman Bates in his mother’s garb in Psycho.

The film is rescued from clunky lameness by a convincing central performance, and because it does indeed have something to say about the nature of maternal grief, and the way that children can induce extreme emotions and alter relationships. That Simon was adopted would seem almost incidental were it not for the link it provides with the ghostly orphans who tempt him. Yet it is hardly the first film to investigate adults’ protective and sacrificial relationship with children, surely a well worn theme in both literature and the cinema.

Other plus points include a hammed up and hilarious cameo from Geraldine Chaplin as a medium who attempts to bridge the gap between Laura’s world and the world of the dead children. These supposedly ‘imaginary’ children are all linked by illness, something young Simon of course also shares, and also by one tragic and dramatic event that had been concealed from Laura during her own youth at the Orphanage. This is quite an effective idea, but it is never fully realised or explored.

Equally effective is the film’s focus on childhood games as a means of breaking the barriers between the world of the living and the world of ghosts. These treasure hunts and other games effectively become the language of belief, and the moment when Laura re-enacts a childhood game of knock has genuine tension.

Unfortunately though, the film prefers to concentrate on the conventional – a tedious dialectic between scepticism and belief (have Bayona and Del Toro not seen the X Files?) and a string of predictable events. When Laura bravely hacks her way through sandbags in some storage units in the garden shed, what else would she possibly find other than the remains of dead children? Are we supposed to be surprised or shocked by this?

Any chance of cinematic redemption is destroyed by the film’s string of saccharine false endings, which represent a concession too far in favour of Hollywood formulae. Why it all reduces to a very icky and unpleasant recasting of the Peter Pan story is somewhat mystifying. Both the scene where Laura submits to an eternity caring for these ill children (in a somewhat less enticing version of Neverland) and where Carlos returns to the Orphanage to feel his wife’s ghostly presence made me groan audibly in the cinema.

I found myself wondering whether I might not have been the only person amongst the audience to find certain elements of this film distasteful. To some extent, it seems to be about illness, but it succeeds only in either turning the idea of care into something rather patronising, or exploiting our fears surrounding the otherness of illness or deformity. I felt this all became a bit conflated and dangerous in the welcoming party scene, where Laura is frantically searching for Simon, de-masking various children, all of whom seem to be suffering from cerebral palsy, and who are made to appear threatening and sinister. Was I the only person to feel extremely uncomfortable with this idea? Also, whilst the film had plenty to say about grief and motherhood, I felt it had very little to say about the fear of death, which is essentially the driving force behind the entire story.

Very brief blink-and-you’ll-miss-them flashbacks towards the end of the film essentially imply that Laura may have inadvertently caused Simon’s death. Are we expected to see the ghost story as a figment of her imagination – a mechanism for dealing with guilt? Or do the ghosts simply direct her to this revelation? If so, what does the ending actually mean?

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