You know a movie is pretty dark when it depends upon a suicide to spawn a happy ending. Nothing wrong with that. But when the movie itself is also pretty pointless, you're in trouble.
The Orphanage is an earnest little ghost story, and the people who made it clearly worked hard to make it so. The director, Juan Antonio Bayona, is Spanish and young (32), as is the curly-haired imp (Roger Princep) who plays Simón, an 11-year-old boy, born HIV-positive, whose parents adopted him at infancy.
The doctors said he had no future, but Carlos and especially Laura didn't believe that. And why should she? An orphan herself, Laura (Belen Rueda) married a doctor after being adopted into a happy home.
Now she's 37, well-to-do, and living in the orphanage where she grew up. She and Carlos are turning the spooky old place into a home for needy children with health problems. Everything's going well until Simón, who already has two imaginary imaginary friends, suddenly finds himself with a real imaginary friend -- who just might have died a quarter-century ago.
And so on, through many shadowy passageways, musty attics, and doors inexplicably slammed shut.
It would be unfair not to acknowledge how well Bayona stages his creepshow, although it's really so easy to do that he'd have no excuse for failing. Only the séance is truly special: When the medium -- played by Geraldine Chaplin, whose tiny face, large forehead and wan eyes can be horrifying without her even trying -- goes into her trance and walks through the haunted rooms, looking for dead people, we see her only in images from video cameras, like we're looking at found footage of an antique madhouse. Good stuff, while it lasts.
If there's a theme going on here, then it seems to have something to do with society's castaway children and the compassion we need to show them. The little friends that Laura left behind at the orphanage literally teased to death a boy with a deformed face. He was different, and they were afraid of him. Did you get that Simón has HIV, and that the doctors said he would never have a life? Your 500-word essay on the collected works of Susan Sontag is due in class on Friday.
The Orphanage tells the kind of familiar-cum-preposterous shaggy ghost story that you either swallow or you don't. This one requires a few lozenges. If Laura truly believes in ghosts, then why would she enter a basement without looking around in every direction? Even Moe, Larry and Shemp did that. Over and over, she acts like a movie character, and Bayona doesn't slow down long enough to establish his drama. The story's ending even violates the thematic premise on which it finally settles: Where, in the cluster of haunted children who can finally come into the light, is the boy with the deformed face? I guess he really was a monster after all. In Spanish, with subtitles.