Saturday, 5 April 2008

Film Review: El Orfanato (The Orphanage)

The main draw for me to The Orphanage was the fact that it has Guillermo Del Toro's name on it, having enjoyed Pan's Labyrinth, which he directed, a great deal. The Orphanage is executive produced and "presented" by Del Toro, but directed by Juan Antonio Bayona who is apparently a protégé of Del Toro's. I went in, not expecting anything that would surpass the incredible blend of fantasy and reality of Pan's Labyrinth but hoping to feel the magical touch of Del Toro within the film.

So, did I? That's a question I'm still debating. The short answer is "sort of". There's nothing wrong with The Orphanage. It's a decent supernatural thriller. Belen Rueda does well throughout as the troubled main character Laura, and Fernando Cayo supports well as her husband. The tension between them as they are torn by their differing opinions on the supernatural towards the end of the film is one of the film's strongest points. The film is also pretty atmospheric all the way through, creating a genuine tension very well that I felt throughout watching.

However, there's nothing that I can rave about. Yes, it's a good ghost story, and the question of whether the occurrences are related to the supernatural or more to do with the characters' states of mind continue right until the very end, and leave you wondering after the film has finished, which is generally speaking a good thing for a film to do. But for me there was a definite sense that I'd seen a lot of it before. Many of the plot devices seem rather unoriginal (creepy and/or ghostly children, for example, have been done again and again pretty much since the time of The Exorcist and The Omen, but seemingly even more regularly during the 21st Century since films such as The Others and The Ring), and whilst they are done well and generally stay away from the feel of a Hollywood blockbuster, it would have been nice to have seen something a little different. The more adventurous ideas, such as Laura's son Simon being HIV positive and his subsequent discovery of this, felt somewhat underdeveloped, having the potential to be very interesting parts to the film when they are introduced but then not nearly exploited to their full potential. The ending would have been stronger had it stopped about two scenes earlier. The ending as it is was far too sentimental. It also felt somewhat tacked on, almost an artificial "happy ending" to what had been for the most part a relatively bleak story.

The film's main strength is its ambiguity, as you are pretty much presented with a telling (not necessary the telling) of the story from the viewpoint of Laura and then left to make your own mind up as to what you think has been happening. Anyone who's seen Pan's Labyrinth (without giving too much away) will no doubt recognise a shared trait there. But, to go back to my point from the start, that and the overriding supernatural/fantasy theme are by and large the only really noticeable influences from Del Toro. And, dare I say it, the film is weaker because of that. I don't like to review films by merely comparing them to other films, but when a new director is promoted as being mentored by a reasonably accomplished and acclaimed director, it is difficult not to make comparisons, especially when it is the new director's debut feature. And even more especially when that feature has the mentor's name on it and not the director's.

Verdict: The Orphanage to my mind is a good film, but not much more. It's genuinely creepy and tense for the most part, it tells a fairly compelling story, and the main actors generally do well. For all those reasons it's worth seeing. But it's nothing incredibly special. As I mentioned before, many of the elements to the story are unoriginal. Bayona shows some promise as a director, but from my experience of Del Toro's work, he has a long way to go before he reaches the artistic level of his mentor. Purely as entertainment, The Orphanage is worth seeing if you like creepy supernatural thrillers, but there's not enough here in terms of art or directorial panache to make it anything more than that. 6/10

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