There is such a thing as “plausability of the conceit”. Or, “How big is the lie I am being asked to swallow?”. This is not unusual in film, we are asked to believe that the twenty year old woman wants to sleep with Michael Douglas or Will Ferrell, that there is no mobile phone signal again, that she would return for her cat, run alone into the woods or defeat a velociraptor with gymnastics. Small lies are easily digested, allowing the film to operate with freedom, safe in the knowledge that the audience is following. The larger the conceit becomes, the faster the audience diminishes as they throw up their hands and cry foul. The genres where these lines must be walked most carefully are Spoof and Horror. Thus, everyone who had the fish has food poisoning, including the pilot, provides a solid basis on which to hang jokes off in Airplane or everyone knows the rules of serial killer movies, including serial killers, keeps Scream purring along in it’s post modern groove. Conversely the Epic/Date/Shit Movie series has no story or concept grounded enough to keep anyone over 12 watching whilst thier attempts at parody are smeared excrementally over the screen.
This brings us (sort of) to The Orphan, a not wholly unlikeable film, ruined by lie after lie after lie smashing the aesthetic distance into pieces. Reeling from the loss of their third child John and Kate Coleman (Sarsgaard and Farmiga) elect to adopt a nine year old Russian girl (Esther) who may or may not be a thirty three year old dwarf hell bent on usurping Kate’s place in the family unit. The new arrival ingratiates herself with their deaf daughter but fails to hit it off with Daniel, the eldest child. She paints creepy pictures and is over protective of a crumbly old bible she carries everywhere. Soon, accidents cannot be ignored and the blame is lain at Esther’s too old by far feet.
In Horror, the central conceit is invariably, a whopper, dream killers, hotel caretaker ghosts and dressing up as dead mothers are not unusual. However, once that lie is believed or at least accepted the rest of the film must be concrete in it’s lucidity, plotting and character actions or everything that has preceded is derailed by lazy screenwriting or hasty dramatizing.
This proves to be The Orphan’s downfall as the surrounding world that the evil child/woman is operating within crumbles and falls. Kate is (implausably) a recovering alcoholic, she has just lost a child in the womb and she is not in a greaat place in her marrriage to John. Even a novice social worker on their first day would be reluctant to entrust them with a new child to take care of. They live in the kind of secluded, open plan house only a person with a job that could possibly earn them a lot of money can afford. Kate is a musician which is nicely non specific and frees her up to be around all the time. Kate and John do all the normal things parents do when they have three nearly teenage kids in the house, they make them sit down as a family for meals, teach them about music, chastise them for swearing, fuck explicitly in the kitchen, the normal stuff.
This “fucking” scene is wholly unforgiveable.It simultaneously makes them look stupid, sex mad, bad at parenting and loses them any sympathy the audience may have had for what follows. They live in an open plan house for christ’s sake! They have three kids! They have a bedroom with privacy. Getting your thrills bending the wife over the work surface whilst putting your children at risk of witnessing a wholly unpleasant scene (which obviously they do) is unacceptably jarring. Throwing a spanner in the workings of a film teetering on the edge of breakdown anyway. The only other example of such willfully stupid, kitchen fucking in cinema history is in Leon and within ten minutes of that scene 80% of that family are dead. Warnings are not heeded.
There is fun to be had watching Farmiga and Fuhrman having fun in their roles. Farmiga brings the naturalness that made Up in the AIr fun to a darker, more two dimensional character whilst Fuhrman enjoys playing with a Harrison Ford Widowmaker accent to give her murdering dwarf a memorable edge. Her big brown eyes are full of darknesss and hate and the transformation that occurs after we know her true age is handled very well. It also makes the preceding scene where we think that a nine year old is trying to seduce Peter Sarsgaard much less troubling. Som shocks are delivered surprisingly competently but most are signposted and spoonfed so carefully that the iceberg in Titanic crept up with more stealth. Learning that Esther may have been involved in an arson incident is followed by an arson incident involving Esther and a plant talked about as significant to Kate meets an all to predictable end.
By the finale the scales have been tipped firmly to schlock but it doesn’t matter as all your thoughts will still be in the kitchen and the gutter.