Orphan (2009) Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. With Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman, Jimmy Bennett, Aryana Engineer and CCH Pounder.
Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan tells the story of a wealthy US couple, Kate (Farmiga) and John (Sarsgaard), who after having recently lost their baby, make the decision to adopt a 9-year-old Russian girl called Esther. As well as two other children, Kate and John have a beautiful home – the kind you might see on TV’s Grand Designs.
The poster and tagline for Orphan ought to give you a rough idea of the territory we’re in. “There’s something wrong with Esther”, it states. Esther, an unnervingly creepy Isabelle Fuhrman, is a strange little girl. She dresses like an extra from Downton Abbey, much to the amusement of her adoptive siblings, and speaks with a confident assurance slightly askew with her place in the world. It’s one of those slowly-peeling-back-the-layers set-ups that could easily play as a bit of a slog in lesser hands.
Thankfully, Collet-Serra is a smart film-maker (he’s now the go-to-guy for Liam Neeson thrillers), and has a good measure of the pace of a film. He also understands that an audience needs more than loud bangs and cheap jump-scares in their horror diet. With the casting of Vera Farmiga, he ensures the solid base of a fine actress to relate the plot. There are also good ideas scattered around the admittedly predictably worn path of the central narrative. Kate and John’s youngest daughter is deaf, leading to some moments in the film being played out via sign-language. It doesn’t take Esther long to see the opportunity to apply some surreptitious torment. This other form of communication is effective in giving the film an extra dimension, as an additional layer of creepiness for its antagonist to exploit.
Ultimately, while Orphan is well performed and directed, it’s still nothing more than effective popcorn fodder. Like so many Hollywood horror-thrillers, characters often fly in the face of common sense, yet we know the rules in these films and Collet-Serra has a good handle on how get by despite them. Bloodily entertaining, with a side order of silly, if that’s what you’re in the mood for. 3.5/5