Movie Review: L'Orphelinat
By Michael Phillips, Tribune Movie Critic
The big noise from Spain comes from "The Orphanage," a huge hit on its home turf presented by Guillermo del Toro, who explored parallel worlds and childhood traumas in "Pan's Labyrinth" to extravagantly imaginative results.
The man del Toro is presenting is Juan Antonio Bayona, who makes his feature film directorial debut with this absorbing and ambitious ghostie. It is made of more familiar stuff than "Pan's Labyrinth": the stuff of haunted houses and wish-fulfillment fantasy as spun by J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, which is referenced very strongly throughout. I can't give too much away, but the most vivid sequences in "The Orphanage" are scary and elegantly wrought and hit the Peter Pan theme from an oblique angle. Also, the incomparably intense Geraldine Chaplin shows up as a medium conducting a "psychic summoning," and her major scene is a slow-building pip - the best on-screen seance in decades.
Belen Rueda and Fernando Cayo portray the parents of young Simon (Roger Princep), a 7-year-old with imaginary friends who appear to be multiplying. Simon's mother Laura grew up in the orphanage Laura and her husband have recently converted into a large and irrepressibly spooky-looking home for sick and disabled children. At the opening-day party, Simon, who has fought recently with his mother, disappears. To where? And who is the little boy in the eerie sackcloth mask? And what is the story of the aged social worker in the comically thick eyeglasses whom Laura earlier finds snooping around the grounds?
As in "Pan's Labyrinth," "The Orphanage" relies on a risky blend of clinically realistic horrors and poetic suggestions of an alternate world, one that can be visited, but at a price. Director Bayona's way with transitions and suspense modulation is already assured. Ultimately the film focuses on Laura's descent into her own past, and here it becomes a room-splitter. I suspect roughly half of any given audience will find the latter stages of "The Orphanage" rather beautiful, while the other half wonders what happened to the film's earlier, more straightforward combination of psychological and material fright.
Rueda has a great pair of peepers for this assignment. When she looks one way and then the other, while skulking through the hallways of her childhood home, every nerve-wracking whatwasthat? registers, and how. Cayo is pretty dull by comparison, but Chaplin certainly is not. We see the seance, in which she communes with the orphanage residents of another generation, on a series of sickly green-tinted TV monitors set up in one room of the orphanage, while Chaplin sits, ghost-like, in another. Marvelous. And in a much cheaper, lower way, so is the one blatant "gotcha!" moment wherein a dying woman literally grabs our heroine before expiring. Director Bayona doesn't linger on such bits, even when he could. He has a fine career ahead of him; there are, after all, worse impulses than holding back a little, especially in a genre not known for restraint.
Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona; screenplay by Sergio G. Sanchez; photographed by Oscar Faura; edited by Elena Ruiz; music by Fernando Velazquez; digital effects by Jordi San Agustin and Lluis Castells; produced by Mar Targarona, Joaquin Padro and Alvaro Augustin. A Picturehouse release; opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: R (for some disturbing content).
Laura - Belen Rueda
Carlos - Fernando Cayo
Simon - Roger Princep
Aurora - Geraldine Chaplin