El Orfanato is a rare example of the 'horror' genre with a strong female lead. Or is it? Lindsey M Sheehan has more
This review contains spoilers. Read at your own risk
El Orfanato - or 'The Orphange' - gained some box-office and critical traction this year, thanks at least partially to its high-profile co-producer Guillermo del Toro (director of the Hellboy films, Pan's Labyrinth, Cronos, etc). How nice, then, that the Spanish horror flick features a strong female lead. Maybe.
I've seen El Orfanato described as a 'horror drama', but I think that just means 'horror with plot' as opposed to 90 minutes of running and screaming. So if not running and screaming, then what? El Orfanato is a ghost story: a little boy starts talking to ghosts then mysteriously disappears. The rest of the movie is about how his mother, Laura (Belén Rueda), searches for him, believing he has been taken by the ghosts.
When I first saw this film, I was so impressed by Laura. She was strong and brave, and no matter what obstacles got in her way she never stopped searching for her son. She called out and confronted a group of ghosts in one of the most tense and chilling scenes I have seen in a long time (and I watch a lot of movies). But - and there is quite a big but.
The but comes down to whether or not you believe the ghosts are real. The film is completely open to interpretation, and has been tearing up forums across the internet with people swearing blindly that the film can only be good if you pick their view and stick to it. However, depending on whether you are willing to believe in ghosts for the sake of this plot changes Laura's character significantly.
I like the strong female lead version rather than the 'yet another woman crumbles' version
If the ghosts were real, then Laura was strong and brave and all the rest of it. She doesn't let a broken leg stand in her way of her search. She chooses to stay in the haunted house by herself when her husband leaves to arrange a new place for them to live. She rearranges the house and dresses up as the matron to draw the ghosts out, deliberately calling them to her so she can try to get her son back. She follows a series of clues supposedly left by the ghosts and finds his dead body: she realises she could have saved him if she'd paid him more attention, and is overcome with guilt and grief. Distraught, Laura takes her son's body up to the nursery, overdoses her medication and finds herself surrounded by the ghostly children who ask her to tell them a story. Reunited with her son, Laura can finally be happy again and, although dead, she is at peace having found what she was looking for for so long.
BUT if the ghosts were not real, then Laura was most likely suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from the loss of her son. She is conned when mediums conduct a séance, and hallucinating when she sees the ghosts. As the film is open to interpretation, all the events that lead up to her finding her son's body can be explained by non-supernatural means. She reaches the pinnacle of mental distress when she finds the body and kills herself as she has nothing more to hope for, hallucinating a calming image as she dies alone.
So there's my dilemma: a gripping horror story that is both chilling and incredibly sad, but is the main character the victim of terrible trauma or a bold heroine who would confront anything, even death, to be with her son again? Personally I like to think the latter - I like the strong female lead version rather than the 'yet another woman crumbles' version. However, I do have the niggling feeling that endorsing ghosts is the 'feminine' thing to do, as apposed to the 'masculine' science and reason that would say these ghosts don't exist. So am I just taking the expected female perspective? And even if I am, does it really matter? I still enjoyed the film, and even though I can see both interpretations I prefer looking at it from this angle.
I urge you to make up your own minds though, and despite telling you how it ends, I left out most of the plot so it's definitely still worth a watch.