Starring Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Rated R for disturbing violent content, some sexuality and language. 123 minutes.
REVIEW BY DANIEL M. KIMMEL
The P.C. police have their guns out for ORPHAN, claiming it stigmatizes children who are adopted. No, it doesn’t. The movie isn’t claiming all or even many adopted children are like this. It’s claiming little Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) is the problem, putting the movie squarely in the genre of “evil children” movies like “The Bad Seed,” “The Omen,” “The Good Son” and “Joshua.”
What makes all these films frightening is the notion that a child – the symbol of life and innocence – could become a figure of violence and murder. It’s unsettling the same way “Psycho” frightened a generation of moviegoers about taking a shower. It’s shattering our expectations, not fulfilling them.
Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) love each other but have faced a number of problems in their marriage, including the loss of a baby, the hearing impairment of their younger daughter, and Kate’s recovery from alcoholism. They decide to adopt a child and select Esther, a precocious nine year old who paints, converses confidently with adults, and speaks with an accent attributed to her native Russia. She also has had some rough times, as her last adoptive family all perished in a mysterious fire.
To say much more would be to rob the viewer of the numerous surprises, twists, and red herrings in store. By the time the film pays off in the final half hour, you may have anticipated some of the action – a gun revealed early on will obviously play an important part – but you’ll be stunned by the big revelation which comes out of nowhere yet doesn’t feel like a cheat. It’s an audacious twist precisely because, once you get it, everything falls into place.
Much credit goes to director Jaume Collet-Serra who shows off his skills to much better affect than in his debut feature, the ridiculous 2005 remake of “House Of Wax.” He establishes the mood and manipulates the audience the way John Carpenter did in the first “Halloween.” You’ll jump and cringe on cue, and have a great time doing it. And you won’t blame children in general, adopted or not, for Esther’s actions.
While the performances are solid, it’s the three lead females who make the picture. First and foremost Fuhrman is utterly eerie as Esther, showing charm to an adult one moment, and holding a wicked looking blade to her stepbrother’s throat the next. It’s amazing that Fuhrman, only 12, pulls it off. Farmiga had an easier time of it, having played the mother of a pathological young boy in 2007’s “Joshua.” Here she gets increasingly frazzled as things spin out of control. Finally, mention must be made of young Aryana Engineer, who plays the deaf younger sister, showing a range of emotions using her eyes and face that easily wins over the audience.
“Orphan” is a great midsummer chiller and one that doesn’t rely on CGI to make you scream.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.