There’s a theory that procreation is about narcissism – you love your offspring so intently because effectively they’re you. This ties neatly to the concept of biological imperatives – we screw in order to survive, to continue our bloodline. That’s why we care for our children. This is tidy and scientific and rational and, well, bollocks. Humans, for all our fragility and flaws and cruelty, love to love; to care, to show compassion. And so we love children. Not just our own – our Godchildren, friends’ children, adopted children. And while they may spring from us, they aren’t us – they are fundamentally other. There’s a terrifying moment in every parent’s life when they look into the eyes of their nipper and realise there’s an independent person there; a person who has ideas and passions and will live and one day die. And there’s nothing you can do about this.
The fear of children’s independence and of being unable to protect them gives Juan Antonio Bayona’s directorial debut its haunting heft. Laura (Belén Rueda) heads back to the ramshackle titular building, hoping to help disadvantaged children – including her own adopted boy, Simón (Roger Príncep), who – unknown to him – is living with HIV. Death is inevitable but most of us avoid thinking about it; for these parents, it’s an ever-present thought. But the enemy in his blood isn’t what takes Simón, it’s the invisible (imaginary?) friends who he runs away with, leaving his mum desperate and unable to let go – she must find him.
Exec-produced – as everyone in the world must know by now – by Guillermo del Toro, The Orphanage does recall both his The Devil’s Backbone and Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others. But it also taps earlier terrors, from Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now to Robert Wise’s The Haunting and even, in Rueda’s conflicted, possibly delusional state, Hitchcock’s Vertigo. She is terrific, a sort of Spanish Julianne Moore, without the hysteria (for an example of a misbegotten US take on similar subject matter, remember The Forgotten). But coming out of the shadow of his mentor, Bayona deserves lavish praise for delivering shocks while preserving the script’s emotional core. As del Toro says on one of the plentiful, engaging featurettes, “I’m like the best man at a beautiful marriage between Bayona and film. So let’s toast the happy couple. Viva Bayona and Viva film!” Cheers.