While the Japanese have certainly overworked the spooky-ghost child meme for all it is worth over the last several years, there is still power in the tragic notion of a life full of potential being cut so short.
Laura (Belen Rueda) has decided to return to the closed orphanage where she was raised, hoping to turn it into a home for disabled children with the help of her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and young son Simon (Roger Princep). All seems well until Simon tells his mother that he has new imaginary friends, whose descriptions seem to match Laura’s memories of other children she knew at the orphanage before she was adopted. In the aftermath of a visit from a rather sinister social worker (Montserrat Carulla), Simon learns that he is adopted and is HIV positive. Upset, he runs away. While her husband concentrates on a nationwide search for their missing son, Laura becomes more convinced that Simon was taken by the ghosts she is now sure haunt the old home.
The Orphanage comes off as a more psychological take on Tobe Hopper’s Poltergeist, an examination of a mother’s despair and its effects on her sanity in the wake of her child’s disappearance. Relying on subtle camera tricks rather than splashy visual effects, Orphanage’s storytelling power really lies in the strength of Rueda’s performance and director Juan Antonio Bayona’s ability to drag out the growing feelings of dread and madness that her character experiences. Keeping things on a slow boil for an extended amount of the film, Bayona balances Laura’s search for Simon with the mystery regarding what happened to the children she knew during her time at the orphanage, expertly weaving the two around each other right up to the film’s darkly sweet and poetic ending.
It’s easy to see why director Guillermo del Toro is involved with this film, even if only in an executive producer capacity. Both Orphanage and del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth pose the same question to their respective audiences- Are their heroines entering into a magical/spiritual world that co-exists with our own mundane reality, or are they escaping their harsh and unbearable circumstances into a fantasy world that only exists in their minds? The two directors present their stories differently- del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is a much richer imagined fantasy world while The Orphanage is more in the vein of a more traditional ghost story, relying on mood and visual slight-of-hand rather than makeup and visual effects. But each tells their respective stories so powerfully, that they leave much material for audiences to discuss after the end credits have rolled.