Reviewed By Henry B. Rosenbush
Long before reaching a clever The Crying Game-style late reel twist and violent dénouement, the disturbing quotient is more than fulfilled in Jaume Collet-Serra’s thriller Orphan.
In only her second movie, after 2007′s Hounddog, with Dakota Fanning, and a few years of commercial work, Isabelle Fuhrman impresses as the titular character whose dark secrets are slowly revealed through her actions as she sets about on a carefully designed plot to destroy the family who have adopted her. Astute audiences should have no difficulty in surmising 9-year-old Esther’s (Fuhrman) ulterior motives as she plays husband against wife, daughter against brother and uses persuasive powers of psychology that even fools the film’s least convincing character, a psychologist.
Film should scare up some serious coin for a while, especially being the only horror film currently in the marketplace, and have a long life on DVD and cable. It wouldn’t have been out of place as a Halloween release, but Warner Brother’s Dark Castle Entertainment feature with its reoccurring theme of kids in peril alerts this is definitely not recommended for children.
Spoiler Alert: Don’t consult Wikipedia unless you want the twist revealed, although as usual for this “reference source” there are many discrepancies in the writer’s synopsis; and although they get the film’s twist correct they certainly confused other aspects of the film.
Although trailers make it appear that little Esther’s body count is high it is misdirection since there are only three on-screen deaths and another most graphic depiction is that of an early euthanized bird (crushed with a rock after being mortally wounded with a paintball gun). While the story alludes to other earlier disappearances and deaths, and the mysterious fate of her previous foster parents, the only other causality outside the family is one smarmy little girl who makes the mistake of humiliating Esther and defacing her old bible.
With a perfectly unsettling score by John Ottman (there is haunting use of Billy Hill’s “The Glory of Love,” which Esther loves to sing, first as a lure to the Colemans in the orphanage, then later unseen while in the bathroom; Jimmy Durante warbles it over the end credits) and strong tech credits, including sound design that makes even a medicine cabinet sliding glass door closing or the filling of a glass of water sinister, and lovely location shooting in snowy Ontario and Quebec, in Technicolor, by Jeff Cutter is aces. Production designer designer Tom Meyer does a terrific job with Esther’s paintings especially the later ones covering her room in the climax. The house looks like it was taken from the pages of Architectual Design.
Orphan is far from perfect and perhaps a bit uneven since it leaves a number of unresolved issues at fade out but like most horror films concerning evil children (starting with The Bad Seed in 1956) it succeeds on its own merits.
For the record, “Seed’s” Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack) the psychopathic child of William March’s 1954 novel (the film was adapted from a play by Maxwell Anderson and directly by Mervyn LeRoy) was portrayed in the book as the daughter of a well-known serial killer and her comeuppance was radically different in the film. She survives in the book but the Hays Code, which controled much of how Hollywood depicted objectionable material convinced the filmmakers that electrocution by a lightning strike (Rhoda has gone to retreive incriminating evidence) was more effective! As often the case, the Hays Code strictly forbade the evil from going unpunished and a film like Orphan would have never been made in the manner it is today.
One final comparison of the differences in eras of movies in the 1950s and 21st Century, the original film presents credits with actors introduced and in the end, Christine, Rhoda’s mother, administers a spanking! A screen card asks the audience to not divulge the ending, whereas the tagline for Orphan teases that the audience will never guess her secret!
There are plenty of similarities: Rhoda, like Fuhrman, plays the prime and proper little girl to the hilt (yes there is significances to the ribbons adorning Esther’s wrists and neck that are never removed until the end) and they both play piano (Furhman does a nice job with Tchaikovsky). When Rhoda loses a school penmanship contest the winner ends up drowned in a lake and Rhoda takes the medals. In the current film a frozen pond figures prominantly, and in both films the young girls are masters at manipulating adults. McCormack was most recently seen cast as Pat Nixon, in Frost/Nixon.
One can almost image Alfred Hitchcock’s “man who no one believes” plot device (think Saboteur or North by Northwest for starters), but using a femme variation as former Yale teacher Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga) is first seen in a horrific opening scene nightmare about the stillborn birth of baby Jessica. Kate is a recovering alcoholic whose negligence led to young daughter Max’s hearing loss.
Credit to the astute casting of young Aryana Engineer as Max, hearing impaired in real life, the youngster does more with facial expressions and her eyes than many older more seasoned actors and Jimmy Bennett as her slightly older brother Daniel, last seen as the Corvette-over-the-cliff driving James T. Kirk in this summer’s Star Trek
Most unforgiving casting goes to unsupportive architect husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) who sides more with their psychologist
Dr. Browning (Margo Martindale) who could use some more classes in psychoanalysis before offering her opinions. It seems he had an affair but is far less forgiving of Kate’s alcoholism than his own infidelities and he apparently still has a roving eye for other women.
The film, as expected, belongs to Fuhrman who exudes equal parts of sweetness and malevolence as the mysterious Russian-born child who’s a talented painter and pianist and speaks with a creepy, but curious, undefined Euro accent.
As orphanage nun, Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder) advises, “she is very mature for her age,” a revelation that figures into the plot believably. Esther is also an accomplished arsonist, blackmailer and in a shocking midway scene implicates the sweet but impressionable Max by making her an assessory to murder. In another nicely done scene, Esther threatens a sleeping Jimmy, into silence, with a box cutter to the throat and a promise to do worse as she slides the blade to a more vulnerable location.
There are plenty of plot discrepancies in David Leslie Johnson’s screenplay, from a story by Alex Mace, including leaving unresolved the fate of one particular character as the credits roll but the acting of Fuhrman, Engineer and Farmiga are strong enough to overcome them.
All three actresses should be cast in comedies after this exercise in unrelenting horror. Farmiga’s other evil child movie, 2007′s Joshua also presented the talented actress in a role where she is victimized by her son. In this film she is instantly mistrusted by her husband and psychologist for past indiscretions and would benefit from any movie sans evil children for a while.
Sexual content may be objectionable to some parents and the strong language, as uttered by the children, is certain to raise the ire of some although in this internet-fueled society most kids already know these words by the age of the characters in the film. There is no nudity in the two sex scenes between husband and wife and a final act incestuous seduction attempt, while on the surface appearing perverse, is quite nicely handled and intentionally disquieting.
After the highly polished, but totally unncessary remake of House of Wax, Collet-Serra again shows a good eye for visuals. In the end, it really showcases the talents of Fuhrman and Engineer.
A Warner Bros. release presented in association with Dark Castle Entertainment of an Appian Way production. Produced by Joel Silver, Susan Downey, Jennifer Davisson Killoran and Leonardo DiCaprio; executive producers, Steve Richards, Don Carmody and Michael Ireland; co-producers, Richard Mirisch, David Barrett, Erik Olsen, Dr. Carl Woebcken, Christoph Fisser and Henning Molfenter. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra from a screenplay by David Leslie Johnson from a story by Alex Mace.
Camera (Technicolor), Jeff Cutter; editor, Tim Alverson; music, John Ottman; production designer, Tom Meyer; art directors, Pierre Perrault, Patrick Banister; set designers, Martin Gagne, Viorel Indres, Raymond Larose, Vincent Gingras-Liberali, Amy Bell; set decorators, Daniel Hamelin, Martine Giguere-Kazemirchuk, David Laramy, Cal Louks; costume designer, Antoinette Messam; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Patrick Rousseau; supervising sound editor, Frederick Howard; re-recording mixers, Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill; visual effects supervisor, Richard Yuricich; visual effects, Lola VFX, Image Engine, Pacific Art & Title; stunt coordinator, Brian Jagersky; associate producers, Aaron Auch, Ethan Erwin, Stacey Fields, Sarah Meyer; assistant directors, Pedro Gandol, Greg Zenon; second unit directors, David Barrett, Javier Aguilera; second unit camera, Michele Laliberte; casting, Ronnie Yeskel.
Reviewed at Cobb Hollywood 16 Theater, Tuscaloosa, AL, July 24, 2009. MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content, Some Sexuality and Language. 2:03
Kate Coleman – Vera Farmiga
John Coleman – Peter Sarsgaard
Esther – Isabelle Fuhrman
Sister Abigail – CCH Pounder
Daniel Coleman – Jimmy Bennett
Dr. Browning – Margo Martindale
Dr. Varava – Karel Roden
Max Coleman – Aryana Engineer
Grandma Barbara – Rosemary Dunsmore
Nice little brief interview with Isabella Fuhrman