What do you do when you want to watch the latest Guillermo del Toro film and there’s nothing new to watch? Do the next best thing and watch a film produced by del Toro and directed by his protégée.
Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona as his first feature film, he must have done something right, because he’s just finished making The Impossible with Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts and Geraldine Chaplin. Of course he had del Toro to guide him and it shows. The Orphanage looks, feels and sounds like a del Toro film.
But that is not a bad thing, at all.
The Orphanage, or El Orfanato, is a Genre film. This term Genre was coined when critics tried to put Joss Wedon’s works into a specific genre. Whedon specialises in blending several different genres into one film or program, hence the use of a new film type of genre that is called just ‘genre.’ The term fits this film like a glove.
The film combines elements from the worlds of horror, the supernatural, fantasy, mystery, thriller, drama and tragedy. It borrows more than a little from the children’s tale of Peter Pan and the lost boys. It also offers up deep heart breaking truths that almost make you want to pull your hair and rend your cloths with grief for the main character. It is in essence the very picture of a ‘Genre’ film and it is a masterpiece by any definition.
The film opens in 1976, a young girl named Laura is playing with her friends and fellow orphanage ‘inmates’ when she finds out that she has been adopted. Playing the game, one-two-three-knock on the wall is the last activity she will enjoy with her friends.
The film moves up to present day and the now 37 year old Laura (Belén Rueda) and husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) along with their adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep) move back to her old orphanage home. She and Carlos have purchased the old building with plans to renovate it into a home for disabled and terminally ill children. Laura and Carlos want to do this for two reasons, Simón their adopted son has HIV and is dying and Laura has wonderful memories of the place and wants to recreate them with Carlos’s help. Especially poignant is the fact that Simón doesn’t know that he is dying.
While Carlos and Laura are renovating the old orphanage, Simón has found a new friend Tomás and Laura gets a visit from a ‘social worker’ Benigna Escobeda (Montserrat Carulla) who says she checking on Simón because of his HIV status. Later Laura finds Escobeda skulking around the coal cellar. She and Carlos call the police who reveal that Escobeda is not a social worker.
Simón draws a picture of his new friend and he shows him having a cloth bag over his head. Laura is intrigued but is too busy organising an open day party to raise interest in the planned children’s home. On the day of the party, Simón and Laura have a huge falling out. It seems that Tomás and the other ‘invisible’ children that Simón has been playing with have shown him his adoption file and that he will soon die from the HIV. A fact that neither Laura nor Carlos have passed on to Simón.
Laura tries to make up with Simón who wants her to see Tomás’s “little house” but because of the party she doesn’t have time. With Simón angry at her again, he storms off to play with his friend. During the party, Laura keeps seeing a child with a burlap bag over his head. When she tries to track him down, he vanishes. So does Simón. During the party both Laura and Carlos look for him but he cannot be found. The police are contacted and they think that perhaps Escobeda has taken him.
The rest of the film deals with Laura and Carlos trying to find Simón and work out what happened to him.
As I said at the beginning of this article, this film has so many elements in it. Geraldine Chaplain has a cameo as a psychic that Laura and Carlos call in to help them find out what happened to Simón. Whether you think of The Orphanage as a ghost film, a fantasy or, especially after the ending, a bittersweet fairy tale, the film will affect you.
I found myself jumping with fright, tensing with suspense, flinching with horror and getting a lump in my throat with tears streaming down my face, several times during the film. The allusions to Peter Pan and Laura being a Spanish Wendy to Simón and the ‘lost children’ of the orphanage are obvious and heartbreaking.
If you watch The Orphanage, be prepared to be put through an emotional wringer. But believe me, it is worth the exhausting journey that you take with these characters.
Guillermo del Toro has taught Juan Antonio Bayona well.
- THE IMPOSSIBLE Starring Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts Set for Release on December 21 (collider.com)
- Gemma Atkinson’s boobs ‘too big for Peter Pan costume’ (mya.co.uk)
- Gary Ross in Talks to Direct Disney’s Peter Pan Prequel ‘Peter and the Starcatchers’ (slashfilm.com)
- To Be Young Again: Maturity and Adolescence in Wes Anderson’s ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ (Feature) (popmatters.com)