US (2009) Dir. Jaume Collet-Serra
Sugar, spice, and all things nice. That’s what little girls are made of according to the popular adage – that and hatred, spite, a violent streak, murderous intent and ruthless manipulation skills. Funny how you don’t see those attributes mentioned when couples are keen to adopt a child….
The marriage of John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga) has been hit by Kate’s alcohol problems following their third child being stillborn. Deciding they still have plenty of love to share with son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and deaf daughter Max (Aryana Engineer) the Colemans head to a nearby orphanage run by nuns and adopt a 9-year old Russian girl Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman).
At first, all is well at home with Max taking a shine to her new big sister although pre-pubescent teen Daniel is less welcoming, and the kids at Esther’s new school also tease her for her unusual clothes. This seems par for the course for a new kid trying to fit but gradually Esther’s behaviour causes concern when terrifying incidents occur whenever she is around.
Originality in horror is always hard, but sometimes this can be overcome by the specifics within a run-of-the-mill story and in the case of cinema, it can come through something as simple as a stunning lead performance. Not wishing to dismiss Orphan as completely derivative, seasoned horror fans will find the rhythms and plot beats are by the book but you won’t find many characters like Esther elsewhere.
Beginning with the age-old swerve of a nightmarish scene that turns to be exactly that, a nightmare, one wonders how many other clichés await us. The answer is quite a few but the screenplay by David Leslie Johnson compensates for this through the flawed cast whose foibles and dramas give way to some unique and disturbing scenarios – not to mention a plot twist that is so wrong it’s well.. still wrong.
Clearly, Esther isn’t the first enfant terrible character in cinema and won’t be the last but she is a memorable one, enough to give Damien from The Omen a run for his money in the devil child stakes, except she is very hands on with her killing. When we first meet her, she is alone at the orphanage painting a picture of quality that is way beyond her years, whilst her impeccable manners and equally flawless English impress John and Kate.
Her freckled cheeks, dainty smile and reserved demeanour earns Esther plenty of good grace at the orphanage and around her new home, especially with Max, having taken the time to learn sign language in order to communicate with her. Yet Daniel is the one who assumes the jealous sibling role, upset that his father is paying too much attention to Esther over him.
For the sake of the audience, it is the quick stern looks here and there which alert us to the fact the sweet Esther everyone fawns over is a façade and behind a devious presence lurks. The first to learn this the hard way is the school bully and frankly, even though two wrongs don’t make a right, we do find ourselves rooting for Esther as she exacts her revenge.
The slight gothic hints of Esther’s Russian influenced attire, black hair in pigtails and Wednesday Addams inspired pale face is an unsubtle signpost of her implied demonic credentials, but unlike Wednesday’s ghoulish antics there is no irony in the havoc Esther wreaks on those who cross her.
Sister Abigail (C. C. H. Pounder) from the orphanage uncovers alarming stories from Esther’s past and pays the Coleman’s a visit, so Esther panics, and enlists the help of doting sister Max to keep the nun quiet. If this is the same Sister Abigail that inspires WWE’s Bray Wyatt, at least we know how she met her demise – and whilst not shocking per se, it is when it’s a cute young girl acting in cold blood.
Pretty soon, Esther racks up a catalogue of disturbing acts to get her way and, for some reason, drive a wedge between John and Kate, not limited to injuring herself in order to get results. Like the poster says, there is something wrong with Esther but it’s not what you think. For this writer, the prelude to the big reveal is perhaps the creepiest scene of the entire film but also the best acted by its young lead.
Isabelle Fuhrman was only 12 when she played Esther (she’s 21 now. Feeling old yet?) but this is one hell of an impressive turn for someone that age. There are many aspects to the character that require an understanding of nuance and timing, and Fuhrman nails it every time. The above-mentioned “creepy” scene has Esther acting in way unbecoming of a child and it’s the realism of the minutiae that makes is such uncomfortable viewing.
Fellow youngster Aryana Engineer is also superb in her debut role. Being genuinely deaf adds credence to her role, as does her adorable presence in making Max the one cast member we fear the most for. Trying not to be overshadowed by the youngsters, Vera Farminga brings a lot of raw emotion to Kate who is otherwise a standard trope as the grieving mother/ex-alcoholic/fall guy.
Jaume Collet-Serra is not a director I am familiar with but since Orphan, his CV mostly features genre fare including more horror and action thrillers. The jump scares are fairly easy to read but when the script calls for some diversions, they are deftly executed in catching us out. Horror aficionados will recognise some of the visual influences but the closing line being lifted directly from the US version of Ring 2 was a bit cheap.
Regardless of how much mileage the textbook handling of the script is for hardcore horror fans, Orphan does throw up enough surprises to make it a decent watch, if not, it’s worth it for Isabelle Fuhrman’s performance alone, who really should be a huge star today.