Spanish born Writer, Producer and Director Juan Antonio Bayona has created through his directorial lens three phenomenal cinematic creations in his career hence far with "The Orphanage" in 2007, "The Impossible" in 2012 and "A Monster Calls" in 2016. Here are my fan appreciations of these wonderful films.
The Orphanage (2007)
"Your friends will miss you Laura" with Laura here portrayed particularly well by Belen Rueda who along with husband "Carlos" (Fernando Cayo) and young son "Simon" (Roger Princep) return to Laura's childhood home, an orphanage, which is currently dilapidated and in a state of disrepair. Laura's aim is simple: to refurbish and redevelop the vast, old building that doubled as her childhood home as both a home for her family and for an influx of disabled and disadvantaged children but her past, and indeed her present, soon catches up with her. The Orphanage was only Rueda's third cinematic feature film however this does not show in an accomplished and stand out performance as Laura, a fiercely protective wife and particularly mother who is often lost in thoughts and memories of her past life inside The Good Shepherd Orphanage and ably supported by Cayo in a much smaller role as her stoical husband Carlos and again, in just his twelfth cinematic outing on the big screen. By far the most impressive of the three main central roles here falls to Roger Princep who in his debut feature film excels brilliantly as the young Simon. Adopted at birth by Laura and Carlos, Simon is a bright, active young boy yet for spoiler deleted reasons retreats into his shell, and a shell of losing himself in fairy tale stories as well as a world inhabited by his invisible friends. Obsessed by the story of Peter Pan, Simon is convinced he too will never "grow up" or "get older", with Princep's magnetic performance one of the film's outstanding highlights and brilliantly captured by Director Bayona's close up and penetrating camera angles. Two further supporting roles are worthy of note with Mabel Rivera as aged Medium to the spirit world "Pilar" and Montserrat Carulla as a deliberately off kilter and seemingly untrustworthy social worker "Benigna".
"One, Two, Three, Knock on the Wall!" and so begins another joyous game of hide and seek at The Good Shepherd Orphanage. Written for the screen by Sergio Sanchez who would also go on to write the screenplay for Bayona's second film The Impossible (see below), The Orphanage is a very impressive directorial debut from Bayona and a first and shining example of his brilliant eye and imagination for shooting a film through the eyes of a child, a template he has used throughout all of his three cinematic films to date. The character of Simon is thus crucially important here as is Roger Princep's incredible debut film performance of a child worried for his future and caught between the real and netherworld of escapism and invisible friends. Although I never warmed to the film as a whole I can still appreciate a wonderful cinematic debut from the Director, a film that is ostensibly a ghost story and psychological thriller but which deliberately underplays the shocks and scares. For they are all here and present but not in a cliched and stereotypically worn way but with creaking floorboards and doors slamming cleverly interspersed and combining with cine film flashbacks, the film continually builds a sense of dread whilst keeping a distance from the more commercially driven loud shock/horror sequences of recent times. What most impressed me with The Orphanage was a sense of never truly knowing where the film will take us as the audience. There are the obvious themes of the triumph of the human spirit which Bayona would again transfer onto his next two films as well as the kindness we need to show others less fortunate than ourselves, and of fairy tales and escapism. As the film approaches it's third Act it also introduces another huge theme of the film, of Carl Jung's theories on the meaning and purpose of life and death and a "passport to the other world". I will re-watch The Orphanage when the opportunity arises as I like the film as a whole even if I ultimately don't love it and it's well worth the running time of 105 minutes if you're seeking a different take on the psychological horror genre.
The tsunami itself arrives but mere minutes into the film and is eerily reminiscent of the devastating television coverage seen around the world and is incredibly realised as well as being horrifyingly visual, visceral and graphically captured by numerous cameras that throw us as the audience right into the very centre of the devastating event. More so the second wave of the tsunami as now that we're fixed into the middle of the drama, this second wave really brings home the magnitude of the disaster and the terrifying peril the family are experiencing as they are torn apart and separated by the natural disaster enfolding around them. This is in complete contrast to the island idyll and dreamscape that first greeted them and which is again magnificently captured by Director Bayona along with his Director of Photography Oscar Faura as we revel in the family's enjoyment as they release Chinese Lanterns into a brilliant full moon late at night and a Christmas Day dive amongst the vibrant colour of the Indian Ocean's coral reef.
"Too old to be a kid. Too young to be a man" and thus one of the many obstacles in front of young Conor. Bullied at school and haunted by continual nightmares, Conor is a mature and independent young man way beyond his tender years but dealing with the fallout of his Mother's illness is taking a huge toll on him as he tries in vain to come to terms with the horrific situation. Isolated, angry and destructive Conor retreats further and further into his own world and a world that perhaps he can control as he emulates his Mother's talent for sketches and drawings as well as his waking dream world with The Monster. Conor seeks help from The Monster and although he may not see it, the help comes in the form of three separate stories told by his new found friend but only if Conor agrees to tell his story after. "Stories are wild creatures" according to The Monster and quickly he seemingly empowers Conor who is in desperate need of help and reassurance as well as an escape from the horrible truth that hangs over his family. As with Simon in The Orphanage and Lucas in The Impossible Bayona again brilliantly focuses on, frames and shoots this film through the eyes of it's child star and here Lewis McDougall is absolutely phenomenal, magnetic and heart breaking in his portrayal of Conor. Besieged on all sides and truly a child in an adult world his performance is awe inspiring and a wonderful achievement from one so young and in only his second feature length film following his debut in 2015's Pan. McDougall is also surrounded here by some stellar acting performances, particularly from Felicity Jones who at first glance is completely unrecognisable in her role of Conor's Mum and similarly to her young co-star, Jones' performance is utterly heart breaking. Sigourney Weaver portrays stern Matriarch and pushy Grandma particularly well in a cameo role and a stand out line from the film as she chastises her young grandson with a telling "I'm not the enemy Conor". Toby Kebbell remains one of my favourite actors of recent times and again does not disappoint in his anchor role of an absent Dad and Liam Neeson's gruff tones voice the all important fairy tale Monster.
Quite simply, A Monster Calls is undoubtedly one of my favourite films of 2017 and indeed of recent times. Heart breaking and a real character study on the grieving process and overcoming insurmountable odds at such a young age, Director Bayona rounds off his Mother/Son trilogy brilliantly with an atmospheric, thought provoking and gut wrenching film that I had the twisted pleasure of seeing three times at my local cinema and now twice since it's recent DVD release and I've adored it every single time. The film resonates with me on a number of levels having had a similar experience as Conor's and so my love for the film may be a little myopic but make no mistake, despite the film's tough through line it's a brilliantly crafted joy of a film and one that I've taken something different from on every single viewing. Highly recommended, just remember to pack some tissues!