Dir. Juan Antonio Bayona
Premiered at Cannes May 20, 2007
It’s 2007. The [First] Cold War is over, and Europe has entered a rapid program of economic integration, expanding the continent’s wealth and influence beyond the traditional power centers and into the underdeveloped periphery. The term “New Europe” is mostly used to describe the former Eastern Bloc, Yugoslavia, and Turkey, but easily fits some western countries such as Ireland (as already seen in Once) and Spain. That fact is made manifest in both The Orphanage’s existence and its overall vibe.
When Spain came back out to the world, its cinema bet everything on high-class genre films, and it paid off enormously. In 2006, Pan’s Labyrinth made Guillermo del Toro a household name in America, leading him to help raise the profile of other Spanish filmmakers, starting with a producer credit on Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage.
Thirtysomething Laura (Belén Rueda) has just returned to an abandoned orphanage on the cold, rocky coast of Asturias, where she lived before being adopted just as fascism ended in the country. Her goal is to rehabilitate the ancient structure as a school for mentally disabled children. But all is not well: her adopted son (Roger Príncep) has always had a vivid imagination, but his new imaginary friend Tomás is getting him into wholly new kinds of trouble; Tomás even seems to know things about the orphanage that Laura herself doesn’t. One day, Simon disappears, and Laura herself sees a distant apparition of Tomás.
Simon’s disappearance, and traditionalist Laura’s steadfast refusal to accept that he has passed (the child was born HIV-positive and required daily medication) quickly opens a rift between her and her strict rationalist husband (Fernando Cayo). But the mystery deepens, as Laura discovers that she may have been rescued at a young age from a grisly fate that’s taken more children in the house than just her son…
Both my friend and I described this movie as “extremely Spanish.” Despite the contemporary setting, the aesthetic of The Orphanage is deeply old-fashioned in a way that would have been wildly out of place in any country that hadn’t experienced decades of despotic isolation within living memory. No wonder so many gothic creepfests love to shoot on the wind-hewn northern reaches of the country.
But most of all, it’s a character-based supernatural thriller. When screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez wrote the script back in the 1990s, he claimed to have based the film in his love of New Hollywood horror flicks like Rosemary’s Baby and Poltergeist, but more than anything it feels like an exceptionally good Stephen King adaptation, where what normally becomes goofy on screen is instead intensely watchable; a ghost story to remember.
How Did It Do?
The Orphanage was lauded by critics, earning it an 87% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes and a place on a whole bunch of year-end lists. It was also a smash hit compared to its tight $4 million budget, earning a whopping $78.6 million.
An English-language remake went into pre-production soon after the accolades, with Del Toro and Sánchez staying on as producer and screenwriter, respectively. But it’s been in development hell for the better part of a decade, so the odds are against it ever being made, as if it needed to be.
Next Time: A Mighty Heart