August 18, 2009

The tagline for Orphan is ‘You’ll never guess her secret”. A lamer but more appropriate tag line would be “You’ll probably guess her secret, but you’ll never be certain until the end”. Orphan is a well made, chilling film that never quite blooms into the full-on horror it aspires to be. If you’re thinking that it might illicit the same amount of gut-wrenching emotional agony as The Orphanage then you’ll be disappointed as this is in some respects a bog standard, high-budget Hollywood movie that manages to rise above mediocrity through characterisation and careful pacing.

It opens with a disturbing dream sequence in which Vera Farmiga‘s Kate Coleman looses a child during birth, a point which is revealed as fact when she wakes from the nightmare and looks at her scarred stomach in the bathroom mirror. A shrine in her cavernous greenhouse to the still born which she bore dead in her womb for 16 days adds weight to the damaging effects the loss has had on her life, and goes towards justifying her adoption of the titular orphan. There are several more layers of tragedy at work beneath the surface of Kate’s life, and though the plot can descend into melodrama at times each flaw and strength has a purpose within the larger narrative framework. Some critics have called it over-long, but it’s nice to see a big film take its time to establish characters and string out the shocks to enhance their effect.

The orphan girl Ester (played by American Isabelle Fuhrman) is very impressive, handling the Eastern European accent of her character adeptly without hamming it up too much. She also shows maturity and skill in switching between the several operative personalities of Ester, and when the film’s final revelation does come you’re sure to be continually convinced by her transformational talents. That’s not a spoiler by the way. I promise. It’s misleading if anything. Anyway, she’s integral to making the film work.

The direction is unfussy yet effective, and the wintry setting is suitably oppressive but nothing you won’t have seen before. You might find it hard to sympathise with a millionaire Yale piano professor with plenty of issues lurking beneath her wealthy exterior, but Orphan is a solid performer, if not entirely original. As a point of comparison it’s about a million times better than The Uninvited, and if you like it you should check out low budget British schlock-horror The Children for more gory, kiddie based mayhem. In fact, here’s a trailer. The acting’s bad but it’s scary, and it’s got that girl off of Hollyoaks in it.


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