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In Association with
Orphan (2009)
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

review by Jonathan McCalmont

I think that it is fair to say that I did not enjoy Jaume Collet-Serra's first film. 2005's House Of Wax came across as a half-baked re-imagining of a 1950s' B-movie intended primarily as a vehicle for Paris Hilton, and Elisa Cuthbert (Kim from 24). It showed just enough directorial flair to be taken seriously but ultimately collapsed under the weight of excessive product placement, hateful characters and set pieces that were absurd and funny rather than scary. As a result of these experiences, I approached Collet-Serra's third film Orphan with a good deal of apprehension. Apprehension which, it turned out, was entirely misplaced as Orphan is not only a hugely enjoyable film, but a film good enough to warrant a full reappraisal of House Of Wax.

Orphan owes a huge debt to Curtis Hanson's The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992), a film about the sadistic destruction of middle-class expectations of entitlement. Hanson's film begins with shots of a beautiful American suburban home and its heavily pregnant protagonist (Annabella Sciorra) visiting her doctor for a check-up. We then see the doctor removing his latex gloves before examining his patient. The circle of trust is broken. The character, quite rightly, reports the doctor to the medical authorities resulting in his arrest and eventual suicide - a suicide that causes his own wife (Rebecca De Mornay) to miscarry in one of the most shocking and memorable sequences in early 1990s' cinema. Her dreams of motherhood destroyed; the doctor's wife then gets the film's protagonist to hire her as a nanny. From this position of trust she turns the protagonist's family against her and sets about seducing her husband.

Aside from a similar opening sequence and a number of narrative similarities, Orphan touches upon many of the same themes and images of middle-class expectation, entitlement and broken trust. However, where The Hand That Rocks The Cradle presented these breeches of trust as disturbing and horrifying, Orphan plays them mostly for laughs as De Mornay's hideous miscarriage is re-invented by Collet-Serra as a magnificent grand guignol house of horrors full of sinister doctors, dead babies and blood-spattered instruments. This opening sequence fixes the film's terms of engagement, what makes Orphan such a successful film are the exact same qualities that made House Of Wax so utterly loathsome: it is funny rather than scary, it is filled with product placement and its protagonists are utterly hateful.

Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) Coleman are hugely wealthy middle-class professionals. They live in an architectural marvel made of wood and glass, they drive a hybrid SUV and they carry what appear to be customised iPhones. They have two beautiful children and they have creative careers. Their life is as close to middle-class perfection as one can get without owning a holiday home in Tuscany. But despite this, Kate is a recovering alcoholic. We are never told why she started drinking but her alcoholism caused her to lose her job (at Yale university, naturally), her unborn child and very nearly the life of her hearing-impaired daughter Max (Aryana Engineer). When not snapping at Max, Kate spends her time refusing to have sex with her husband, going to a therapist and babbling incoherently about wanting to transfer the love she had for her lost child onto something new. In short, she is spoiled, self-centred and utterly unsympathetic. This perfectly sets the stage for the arrival of Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a beautiful and preternaturally talented Russian orphan who is adopted by the Coleman family.

Collet-Serra sets out to make Esther as sympathetic as possible. As well as being hugely talented and intelligent, Esther dresses in a highly individualistic manner which, though adorable, immediately makes her a target for school bullies. Add this to the fact that she is an orphan and from Russia and you have a character who appears to be a complete underdog. She even bonds with the film's more sympathetic secondary characters such as Max and John while the film's less sympathetic characters - Kate and her son Danny (Jimmy Bennett) - remain oddly distant. This means that when Esther's true nature starts to reveal itself, we are still sympathising with her and not sceptical Kate. Esther's first gestures of violence include taking revenge on a school bully (fair enough) and putting a pigeon out of its misery after Danny sadistically shot it with a paintball gun (again, fair enough). Even when her relationship with Kate turns sour, Esther still retains our sympathy as Kate clearly over-reacts by wanting to send Esther to a psychiatrist simply for knowing the meaning of the word 'fuck'.

Where House Of Wax suffered for its unsympathetic characters and product placement, Orphan thrives as the script's masterful control of our sympathies and the Kate and Esther relationship combines with strong performances by Fuhrman, Farmiga and Sarsgaard to make it seem entirely believable that parts of the family would side with Esther instead of Kate despite the fact that she is obviously a violent psychopath. Indeed, the characters and their relationships are utterly central to Orphan's charm and are largely responsible for driving the film's narrative forward. But, despite this, the film is no mere character piece. It is a proper cinematic thriller filled with wonderful cinematic moments. The film's final act, in particular, is made up of one memorable scene after another as Esther refashions first Kate's wardrobe and then her husband. There is also a final confrontation in a pond that is reminiscent of Laughton's The Night Of The Hunter (1955), and a transformation of a bedroom into an art installation that had the audience in the cinema I attended positively shrieking with delight and horror.

Ultimately though, what fixes Orphan in the mind is not its perfect pacing, its simmering class envy or its macabre sense of humour but its brilliantly realised characters. David Johnson and Alex Mace have created a story that demands our attention by making us care about the characters enough to want to know what will happen to them. This might seem like a fairly obvious technique to use but it is surprising how many writers fail to use it properly. To see the technique applied so skilfully to such a wonderfully unpleasant collection of characters is a joy, especially at a time of year when cinemas are packed with empty-headed action films and hollow-eyed romantic comedies. Despite the dodgy track record of its director and its derivative and unambitious trappings, Orphan is undeniably one of the best-written films of the year.

Orphan poster

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