||Guillermo del Toro’s credit as the “producer/presenter” of this Spanish fantasy chiller might lead one to expect something of the quality of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” but if so you’re likely to be disappointed. Juan Antonio Bayona’s debut film has some of that picture’s visual elegance but—though not for lack of trying—too little of its haunting imagery and mysterious depth. “The Orphanage” is far more similar to Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Others” (2001)—a tidy, if slow-moving ghost story that offers some modest chills, a couple of genuine shocks and an ending that will probably come as a letdown.
The set-up finds Laura (Belen Rueda) moving with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and darling young son Simon (Roger Princep) into an old seaside house, formerly the orphanage where she’d lived before being adopted thirty years earlier. The couple’s laudable intent is to turn the place into a home for disabled children. But before long the peaceful promise of the place is shattered. A strange social worker (Montserrat Carulla) shows up unannounced to check on Simon, who—as it turns out—is not only adopted but terminally ill. Simon not only finds out about this, but falls under the spell of a group of imaginary friends and begins sketching pictures of a frightening figure familiar to Laura. During an “open house” for the children the estate is meant to house, Laura herself encounters a weird boy whose face is concealed by a burlap bag. And then Simon simply vanishes.
The remainder of the film, set some six months later, centers on the distraught Laura’s search for Simon, which involves consultation with a police psychologist (Mabel Ribera) and a séance in which a medium named Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin) searches the building, concluding that the boy’s disappearance is connected with what happened to the orphans Laura left behind three decades earlier. There’s also another meeting with the social worker before a last act in which Laura investigates the house on her own and confronts both her past and her destiny.
In many respects “The Orphanage” is a variant on “The Turn of the Screw”—the question is, are these actual apparitions or the fevered imaginings of the heroine’s mind? And in the process of answering that, the picture does create an atmosphere of vague dread, as well as some effective “gotcha” moments, without resorting to the kind of gore and bloodletting that’s become so depressingly familiar in thrillers nowadays. Certainly one has to credit Bayona’s sensitive touch as well as Josep Rosell’s art direction and Oscar Faura’s smooth, moody cinematography. And the acting is more than just functional, with Rueda engendering real sympathy for the mother’s plight and the others providing stalwart support (especially little Princep). And while Fernando Velazquez’s music sometimes comes on too strong, by and large it does the job of enhancing rather than distracting.
Yet in the final analysis when measured against the classics of the genre, “The Orphanage” comes up short, especially when it opts for a sort of magical sweetness in the end. One can accept a lack of logic in a picture like this, but here it feels more like a failure of nerve.
So while one can appreciate del Toro’s desire to nurture young talent seeking to follow in his footsteps, it has to be said that in this case at least, the student doesn’t prove the equal of his sponsor.