Watch the first half hour of Orphan, and you could be forgiven for thinking you’re watching a family film about a mother overcoming a miscarriage through the adoption of a nine year-old orphan girl. Early scenes are brightly light, full of primary colours. The titular orphan, Esther, seems perfect – bright, talented, friendly – if …unusual.
Orphan is no a light-hearted drama, of course. Esther’s weirdness quickly progresses from quirks like not removing the ribbon around her neck to murdering nuns with hammers, and the colour drains out of the film (by the time we reach the climax, it’s practically a black-and-white movie). Her adoptive mother (Vera Farmiga) gradually begins to suspect Esther’s true nature, but as is the tradition in such films, no-one believes her until it’s too late. The film has enough shading to not feel clichéd, whether it’s the real sense of history between Farmiga and her husband (Peter Sarsgaard) or the inescapable sense of dread that oozes from Esther, thanks to an astounding performance by twelve year-old Isabelle Fuhrman.
The film never surpasses its genre limitations (you’ll have a pretty good idea of who lives to the end, for example), but it’s a sterling execution of the form.