It's a ghost story. It was big in 2007 and did amazing business back home in Spain. The producer was Guillermo del Toro, who's also going to be the producer of the American remake. To quote the original's director, Juan Antonio Bayona, "The American industry doesn't take chances; that's why they make remakes of movies that were already big hits."
Unsurprisingly it's a good film, but over and above that I was impressed. Ghost stories are tricky. They're subtle creatures that depend above all on mood, can't be churned out like most cinematic horror and have to strike an awkward balance. They don't want to be cartoonish, but neither can they afford to become so understated that the audience falls asleep. One of my favourite things about The Orphanage is how well it handles this dilemma. It's taking itself seriously and delivering a classy film that never for a moment falls into schlock, but it's also full of energy. It's a fun watch! There's a death in the second half of the film that nearly made me laugh out loud, yet at the same time the ghosts themselves are spooky. For quite a long time, the film's teasing us about whether there's anything supernatural going on at all, but I actually jumped at one or two of the rare occasions when we see the dead.
The heart of the film is the character of Laura, powerfully played by a brave actress called Belen Rueda. It's a barnstorming performance, laying herself open for the role and never trying to look glamorous or actor-y. Laura and her rationalist doctor husband are the parents of a young boy who talks to invisible friends. Yes, I know. It's been done before, but fortunately this film has a keen eye for cliche and a talent for steering clear of them. I thought I knew exactly what was coming at one particular point near the end, but I was wrong. What's unique about the situation here is that Laura's house is a former orphanage and she wants to turn it into one again. She won't try to look after too many children. Maybe five or six. She herself used to be an orphan here and for her the place is riddled with memories. Laura owns this film, although admittedly that's partly due to the director going through the script and pruning scenes that didn't focus on her. She goes through horrendous trials here, but her energy never flags and she never falls into self-pity. No matter what, she's determined to save her son.
Even more than most ghost stories, this resembles a time travel story. Yes, there are things Laura never knew, with backstory that's a little more complicated than you might expect. Her old friends still remember her, though. That's right. The dead ones.
Thematically, the film's playing with the motifs of Peter Pan as well as more obvious suspects like The Turn of the Screw. "The boy who never grew up" is an idea that's been done a few times before, but this film is also drawing parallels between its Laura and Wendy. There are also parallels between Laura and her son, for instance in the way in which it doesn't even occur to the rationalists that there might be truth in their more fantastical claims. However in fairness this is a film that's been constructed to let you interpret the whole thing from a sceptic's point of view, in which the ghosts never existed and the very notion is bunk. They don't use their supernatural elements as a "Get Out Of Jail Free" card. I liked that a lot. It's nice to have explanations that don't simply laugh at the audience and just say it's all magic. On the contrary, the film's eventual choices make it more interesting and horrible. However back on the supernatural side of things there's one bit of inspired mythology here that I also particularly liked, which is the idea that it's those who are close to death who are most likely to see the dead. This gives more force to the very premise of a ghost story, not to mention giving the option of a darker reading for the last scene of the film. Admittedly we'd previously met a group of people who'd all seen the dead and yet were still alive, but one might still wonder.
At one point a medium shows up. This could have been allowed to be silly, but it gives rise to one of the movie's creepiest sequences in which the medium's associates have wired up the house with video cameras and are watching on slightly greenish monochrome monitors. Their cameras can't move and of course have been set up to cover as much of the room as possible, which means in practice that the images on the monitors have that creepy cinematography that's always watching open doorways and giving you the impression as a trained moviegoer that something's going to pop up at any moment.
This is quite a difficult film to maintain a long discussion about, because as far as I can tell, it's flawless. I don't mean to imply by this that it's the best movie ever made, but I can find nothing here to criticise. Belen Rueda's central performance is brave, rich and admirable. Everyone else around her is also good, including the children. The story makes sense and is managing to tell a vivid and energetic ghost story without sacrificing any of that subtlety and atmosphere that's so necessary to the genre. It plays with subjectivity and possibly unreliable viewpoints without ever losing the audience. It's classy, but also fun. There was some amazing foreign-language horror in the first decade of the 21st century, wasn't there?