Movie Review: Orphan
By Matthew Huntley
July 31, 2009
Somewhere within Orphan lies a horror movie destined for greatness. As it is now, the movie is pretty good, creepy and effective, but it doesn't quite live up to its full potential. There were times when my heart sank and I was afraid it might descend into another stock example of the genre. But while it consistently teeters on that possibility, it stays afloat thanks to bold direction and strong performances, not to mention one crazy twist.
The movie's tagline reads, "There's something wrong with Esther." As the audience, we know this from the beginning. There is, in fact, something inherently unwholesome about a nine-year-old girl who paints pictures like a professional, plays Tchaikovsky on the piano, and curtsies in front of her elders. Naturally, the adults in the movie are blinded by her charm.
If only Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) saw what we did - it might have saved them a lot of trouble. The Colemans are a yuppie couple with two children. They tried to have a third, but the baby was stillborn, which led to Kate's drinking problem, and, in turn, to a near fatal accident involving her deaf daughter, Max (Aryan Engineer).
A year has passed since then, and after some therapy sessions with Dr. Brown (Margo Martindale), Kate is ready to adopt. She wants to give the love of her deceased child to a living one who really needs it. At a nunnery, she and John meet the delightful Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a Russian orphan who speaks fluent English and comes with a remarkable sense of sophistication and eloquence. As usual in this type of movie, because Esther seems too good to be true...you get the idea.
The Colemans adopt Esther and everybody welcomes her, except for Kate and John's oldest son, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett), who remains suspicious of his new sister. Something about her just rubs him the wrong way, not least the way she acts and dresses, which causes him embarrassment at school. John and Max take the strongest loving to her but Kate remains apprehensive because she's still reminded of her dead baby. As soon as she starts coming around, strange events happen: Esther screams at the top of her lungs in the middle of school; a violent incident occurs on the playground; Esther walks in on Kate and John having passionate sex (yet she's hardly upset over it); and she refuses to see a doctor or dentist. She doesn't even want Kate to watch her take a bath.
What's the deal with this child? That's for you to find out, which is part of the fun and suspense of Orphan, a movie that's often extreme with its imagery by placing little kids in disturbing situations. But because it's rated R, director Jaume Collet-Serra is given more freedom than most horror filmmakers. He holds nothing back and refuses to compromise with the movie's visceral effect. It is very violent, yes, but not for violent sake. All the blood and bone cracking ups the cringe factor and creates real tension. The violence isn't gratuitous, but an extension of Esther's evil and deterministic nature.
The movie falls flat in two areas: its quick explanations of the plot and the John and Dr. Browning characters. When Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder) warns Kate and John something may be off about the little girl (she tells them whenever there was an accident at the orphanage, Esther was close by), John and Dr. Browning are in complete denial. Given everything that happens after Esther arrives at the Colemans', wouldn't they at least be open to the possibility the little girl is behind them? It's insulting when characters in movies are made thick-minded just because the plot requires it. When you listen to John and Dr. Brown try to convince Kate her own suspicions are all in her head, it's embarrassing because not even the actors seem to believe what they're saying. When everything else in the movie - including some incredible stunts - feels so grounded and intense, it's painful to see some of the characters act irrationally.
What struck me the most about the movie was the performances from the three main females - Farmiga, Furhman and Engineer. All three actresses, each of various ages, are thoroughly convincing in their roles, especially when you consider the implausibility of the screenplay. Farmiga has played a distraught mother before in Joshua, but here she's stronger and more sympathetic as a woman who will stop at nothing to protect her children. I was impressed the filmmakers took time away from the horror theme to show Kate tempted by alcohol. The scene is so well acted by Farmiga it would have been cruel to leave it out.
I was also taken aback by Furhman as Esther. The actress is only 12-years-old, but she shows a lot of grace and maturity for her age. Like Dakota Fanning, Furhman will be going places. And so will little Engineer as the deaf girl, who has a tough role because it's all reactionary and she's never given any dialogue. She's also very cute, but despite that, she still has to act and we're with her every step of the way.
Orphan gradually surprised me as it went along. During its first act, it proceeds like any other horror thriller, but it eventually builds into something genuinely scary and unforgettable. It's not the most original film (there's traces of The Bad Seed and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle in it), but it's quite effective. Thanks to its performances and Collet-Serra's sheer effrontery to depict a family and children in peril, the movie keeps us involved and on edge. If it had approached the material from a total level ground, it might have been a masterpiece. But as sensational horror, it's one of the better of its kind.