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Orphan (2009,USA)

30/08/2011

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra    Starring: Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman, CCH Pounder

Evil children are a common motif in horror whether it’s the Satanic cuckoo in the nest a la The Omen, the gestating spawn of Beelzebub as per Rosemary’s Baby or the slightly less devilish but no less startling sinister children to be found in the likes of Village of the Damned or The Damned. There is something fundamentally creepy about kids that “aren’t quite right”, a fact that the makers of Orphan have recognised and attempted to capitalise on in this adoption-gone-wrong chiller.

Kate (Farmiga) and John (Sarsgaard) are a couple still grieving the loss of their third child in the womb . Kate carries not only the misplaced guilt for her unborn daughter’s death but also has the fact the youngest of her two children is deaf due to an accident that occured largely because she was in a drunken stupor when she should have been looking after her. The couple decide to adopt an orphan (seemingly as a therapeutic measure to get them over the grief of the lost child) and end up bringing home Esther, a little Russian girl whose family died in a house fire. Esther is a strange child, clearly intelligent and talented but there is something not quite right about her. It soon becomes clear that she is never far away whenever there is trouble and that she is exerting a powerful influence over her adopted brother and sister. The more bad things occur, the more suspicious Kate becomes and tries to trace Esther’s origins with terrible consequences.

Overall, it’s not a bad effort. It’s certainly creepy enough thanks to a decent turn from Isabelle Fuhrman who handles the switch from polite, innocent schoolgirl to black hearted psychopath well and manages to maintain a convincingly evil aura throughout. There are some nice touches (if a little contrived) to how she covers up her dark secret. Vera Farmiga is also eminently watchable and pulls off the confusion, guilt and grief of her situation with a degree of style. In terms of story, there is sufficient convincing menace from Esther that you can believe she is capable of the things she does and I’d be lying if there wasn’t a slight sense of satisfaction to be had from her brutal vengeance against the school bully for example. It is flawed in some quite serious ways however.

 The plot unfolds at a rapid pace which unfortunately makes some of the elements seem a little patchy. Why, for example, would a couple with such clear problems (Kate is struggling with alcoholism for example and has eschewed the traditional channels of support like AA in attempting to deal with it) be given such an easy ride when attempting to adopt a child? Is it as easy as turning up at the orphanage and choosing one? It all seems rather unlikely and could do with a little more explanation although I suppose these points can be easily forgiven when dealing with this kind of genre film. Less excusable is the speed of deterioration that occurs in the couple’s relationship when Esther starts her Machiavellian games. It seems to jump instantly from concern about her behaviour to John threatening divorce over his wife’s seemingly unreasonable obsession that it could somehow be Esther’s fault. It’s not that it’s unbelievable that it would reach this stage, it just seems to hit that point so quickly and with so little provocation that it crosses the line of plausibility a little.

All that is a drop in the ocean compared to the sheer absurdity of the film’s main premise, the twist in the tale of Esther’s history and how she came to be the way she is. You will find no spoilers here, I can assure you, suffice to say it is silly in the extreme and while it may explain certain elements of the plot it leaves far more questions to be asked than it answers. This sudden, traumatic necessity for the absolute and complete suspension of disbelief caused me to turn against the film at the last minute which is a bit of a shame as I’d been quite enjoying it as a piece of harmless entertainment up until that point.

In the end it doesn’t really work fully as either an exploration of grief and guilt (see instead Don’t Look Now or Antichrist) or child gone wrong (probably the best example of this being The Omen) which is a shame because they certainly seem to be trying their hardest to make it work on both of these levels. To be honest, it is undone mostly by it’s own ridiculousness with just too many preposterous loopholes to the plot but beyond that is quite a competently constructed, if throwaway, horror. Hopefully it is the start of bigger and better things for Isabelle Fuhrman who shows a lot of promise in the film. Otherwise it is a film that is ultimately quite enjoyable even if it’s in little danger of being remembered a few years from now.

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