The Spanish film The Orphanage (El Orfanato) has been marketed in the U.S. as a movie that Guillermo del Toro worked on in some capacity: similar to Pan's Labyrinth, but with more elements of horror. I found this campaign to be terribly misleading, even disappointing in light of my expectations. (Misleading marketing for a movie? You could have knocked me over with a girder, to quote Dorothy Parker.) The Orphanage is instead more of a slow-paced suspense film with supernatural trimmings, centering around a mystery that the main characters cannot solve even though the audience may have figured out a few clues. Although del Toro is credited as a producer on the film, it's directed by J.A. Bayona and has very little in common with Pan's Labyrinth, except that both feature children with rich fantasy lives.
Laura (Belen Rueda) and Carlos (Fernando Cayo) move to an old country estate with their son, Simon (Roger Princep). The mansion used to be an orphanage where Laura lived as a girl, until she was adopted. Now the couple is renovating it as a home for special-needs children. Odd things start occurring, though, before they can finish the job. An old woman who says she's a social worker warns Laura that she's keeping an eye on them because of Simon's chronic illness, and knows information that the parents have not yet told their child. And Simon discovers a whole slew of new invisible friends, some of whom sound extremely spooky and even dangerous. They play a special game that you know isn't going to end well. On the day of the grand opening for the renovated orphanage, Simon disappears without a trace. Has he been kidnapped, and is he still alive? Laura is determined to root out the truth and find her son, and will try anything.
The plot of The Orphanage reminded me a lot of the cheesy horror films I grew up with, in which the big reveal was something I'd figured out already, myself. I didn't figure out the revelation of this film beforehand, but I couldn't understand why the characters didn't try such-and-such when it had been set up as an obvious thing to do, earlier in the film. In addition, the revelation felt flat, and it was hard to believe that no one knew about ... well, see the movie and you'll understand what I mean.
Although the mystery that The Orphanage presents seemed thin and often stretched out to fit the length of the feature, the character of Laura and her development made the movie worthwhile. Belen Rueda is fascinating to watch in the role. The flatness of the big revelation is redeemed by the final scenes of the movie, and Laura's ultimate fate. After a certain point in the movie, it's hard to continue to care about what has happened to the son -- it's what happens to the mom that keeps you going.
I also liked the scene with the parapsychologists who tried to scan the house for traces of ghosts -- Geraldine Chaplin has a small role as the psychic of the group. Again, it's the emotional depth underneath the scene that draws you into the movie, not the storyline itself. But the subplot involving the child with the weird bag on his head (which is being promoted on some posters) seems forced and trite, as though it's necessary to have some bizarre icon in order to brand the film properly. It's another aspect of the story that makes you feel like you've watched this before.
The Orphanage is worth seeing for Rueda's performance, but not if you're in the mood for a lively suspense thriller or a scary horror movie. Think of it as a drama with ghost-story elements and a touch of Peter Pan, and you're more likely to be satisfied by the film than if you took the movie's marketing at face value.
[For another opinion about The Orphanage, check out Scott Weinberg's review from Toronto last year.]