From the thematic point of view, it's perfectly natural that in a determined point in The Orphanage (El Orfanato), the classic Peter Pan is mentioned: since the film's own story is about kids who will never grow up, it becomes some kind of ghostly version of Peter Pan and it also fits on another genre that has films like The Innocents, The Others and The Devil's Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo).
With his first work in a feature film, screenwriter Sérgio G. Sánchez, the film is about Laura (Belén Rudea), a woman of thirty something years old who decides to buy the mansion in which was the orphanage she lived in as a child. Moving there with her husband and her son, Simón (Roger Princep), she's a woman quite determined to build there a house for children with special needs, something that reflects Simón's own condition, who's adopted and carries the HIV virus. Little by little, though, the kid begins showing an strange proximity towards his "invisible friend", and when a particular freak accident takes place, Laura becomes obsessed in the hidden mysteries of the house.
In a superficial analysis, The Orphanage doesn't bring any big innovations (obviously): it's the old formula of the haunted mansion and that also has the child who's the first one to make contact with the "other world", the spirits with an apparent desire for revenge and so on. What makes this film so effective, is the emotional investiment it does on its characters, since during a big part of the film is dedicated to the psychological development of the main character, making her drama so real, palpable for the espectator, who, then, doesn't simply begin fearing for her safety but also is touched with her suffering.
And in the same way, unlike so many films of the same genre, who deal with their children as small adults (even good films like The Ring and The Sixth Sense), here Simón is an absolutely normal boy, who, in the morning he asks to his mother if "he can wake up", worries if Santa Claus exists or not and shows a touching dependece towards the cares of his mother. What makes the film even stronger, as we are now fearing even more with what might happen with the kid. Besides, the intense performance given by Belén Rudea, makes Laura a dedicated mother, but who also fails, and, because of that, tortured by remorse. It all helps to give the proper weight to the narrative.
Appearing as a promising talent in his first film, Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona joins the group already formed by Mexican Guillermo del Toro and Chilean Alejandro Amenábar in a group of latin filmmakers with a particular talent for the macabre. Showing he knows exactly what he's doing and exactly what he wants, Bayona starts The Orphanage in a more than proper idilic way, showing a sunny day in a green backyard, while a few kids play around with nothing to worry about, only the odd music playing in a very subtle way shows us that something is not quite right in that scenary. Using that, the director establishes the perfect dynamic with the audience: even in the moments that are apparently harmless, we antecipate the tension to come, and in the process of antecipating, we keep this feeling present during all through the film, in a game that crushes our nerves into tiny bits.
Though, the most admirable is the very secure way that Bayona alters suspense and shock: when in a costume party with lots of people wearing masks creates a sensation of disturbance in the audience and when another incident that happens further on schocks in the very brutal way it is suddenly shown. Once again, the director shows perfectly conscious of when he can (and must) replace the subtelty of insinuations by images much more graphic and disturbing. And more: enriched by the brilliant sound design done by Oriel Tarragó (awared with the Goya), The Orphanage terrorizes thankfully also to the creeks, whispers and other sounds that seems to evolve us and that reveal to be absolutely fundamental also in one of the most anguishing sequences: the brilliant appearence by Geraldine Chaplin (how many languages can she speak??), who takes us into a mediunic voyage through the mansion, helped by a surgically precise editing who intercalates infra-red plans, shots of the blueprints of the house and suffocating close-ups on the actors. This sequence only matches up with another one, further on the film, when the director makes many panoramics when Laura plays a game that seems to attract the attention of the ghosts in the house little by little.
The Orphanage has only one flaw, it becomes way too long on one last scene (I won't give it away) trying excessively to tie up all lose ends, it ends up diminishing the all impact that came before. Still, this is an undeniebly tragic story, impactating and dark, that takes the espactator outside the theater with an unpleasant feeling that remains intense for a long time. And believe me, this is a huge complement.