Samuel Dore: How 2009’s horror thriller Orphan smartly integrated deafness and sign language into the plot

Posted on February 12, 2015

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I should mention beforehand Orphan is a film that contains American Sign Language (ASL) dialogue and I’m a British Sign Language (BSL) user so I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the signing.

For many years we’ve seen deafness portrayed in cinema in so many ways, some were hit and miss, some were lazy but every now and then film makers would get it right like director Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan (2009)

Orphan tells the story of Kate (the excellent Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) who, after losing a child, decide to adopt a girl, the mysterious Esther (an incredible Isabelle Fuhrman) to join their family but things soon lead to manipulation and murder.

Their family has two children; Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and, the focus of this article, 8 year old deaf Max played by hard of hearing Aryana Engineer who uses sign language with her family, even with the psychotic Esther.

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Orphan is a solid and decent horror thriller relying on strong performances by the cast with a plot that kept me guessing to the absurd-yet-unexpected twist along with sharp visuals and tight direction by Jaume Collet-Serra.

But what fascinated me the most about this film was how well a mainstream Hollywood film portrayed a hearing family with a deaf child as well as smartly integrating Max’s deafness into the plot.

Prior to this film we have seen many cliches that comes with having deaf characters in films. A lot of the time hearing characters repeat what the deaf people are saying just for the benefit of audiences, deaf characters speak and sign at the same time just to make things easier for the film makers in terms of production logistics. Their deafness are served as a plot function which is fine but it makes their characters one-dimensional and, more controversially, casting hearing actors as deaf characters.

Firstly the film makers of Orphan cast Aryana who is hard of hearing in real life and uses American Sign Language (ASL) so this meant the actors who played the family had to learn ASL for the benefit of her as her character Max would be contributing greatly to the plot.

As I said before how hearing characters would repeat what deaf characters were saying, Orphan doesn’t do this. It instead shows burnt in subtitles whenever Max is signing thus giving her an individual voice in the film without relying on other characters to communicate for her, this quickly empowers Max as a deaf character.

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Early on in the film we see an entire scene between Max and Kate as they communicate in sign language without any voices when Kate reads Max a bedtime story in ASL followed by a conversation about when Kate lost her baby during birth. Their dialogue is presented in the same burnt in subtitles and it is Max who insists Kate tells her a bedtime story and it is Max who signs to her about baby Jessica, all through ASL.

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There’s a dinner table scene where, after Esther has joined the family, we see how the parents use ASL just so Max knows what’s going on but we see Daniel struggling with communicating with his little sister. This is not uncommon in real life, plenty of siblings or even parents don’t use sign language with their deaf relatives and this nicely sets up tension between characters particularly when Esther learns ASL quicker than Daniel has ever done.

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Esther soon manipulates Max and uses her deafness to her advantage where she is asked to lipread what Kate is saying on the phone across the supermarket. At first glance this is a bit of a cliche, that deaf people are pretty good at lip reading but this is used purely for dramatic reasons. Jacques Audiard did this to implausible but great effect in his Hitchcockian French thriller Read My Lips (2001) and every film based on real life always exaggerates things for entertainment anyway. Yet again Esther and Max communicate in ASL with burnt in subtitles.

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Throughout the film Esther has Max under her spell and she is threatened by Esther if she says anything about what she has done, Max isn’t being shown as a weak person because of her deafness, she is just an 8 year old girl who hasn’t grasped the notion of what’s right and what’s wrong.

It’s worth mentioning at one point in the film Esther threatens Max by speaking in her hearing aids, it’s clear Max is someone who can hear fairly good enough as a hard of hearing person yet relies fully on sign language.

It gets a bit confusing here as hard of hearing people normally have good speech skills on account of being able to hear fairly well and learn what sounds are whereas profoundly deaf people can’t hear sounds that well and often don’t have good speech skills but every person’s deafness varies greatly.

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However near the climax Esther hides Max’s hearing aids, this is showing how devious she is and it makes for a very dramatic moment. This is seen as one of the taboos of being Deaf – having your hearing aids taken away from you like you would take a paraplegic’s wheelchair away.

Esther soon makes her real self known and sets out on a bloody rampage after Max and her family, we see Max hiding in the greenhouse and Kate is on the roof whilst Esther is looking for Max. Through the glass roof Kate signs to Max to stay hidden, again another nice touch regarding ASL, how we can sign through windows and not using our voices to our advantage in dangerous, life-threatening situations.

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This might be a bit random but at the climax there’s a struggle between Esther and Kate on top of a frozen lake, Max picks up a gun and fires a bullet off, a very silly moment yes but it’s not often you see an 8 year old girl like Max brandishing a gun. How many times have you shouted at characters on the screen for standing around, not doing anything whilst their friends or families are in danger?

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Orphan has a cast of well-rounded characters and this includes Max who could have been a token disabled character instead is a proactive and layered character who goes through a subtle arc of starting off as an empowering and confident deaf girl who then is manipulated and ends up fighting for her family.

This is not window-dressing or ticking the diversity boxes, this is smart writing because her deafness and using ASL, a visual language, is what gives her character and Orphan’s plot that edge so having deaf culture and sign language laced into the plot has contributed massively to the film’s tension and drama.

Samuel Dore is a London-based freelance film maker who directed Chasing Cotton Clouds (2009) and Supersonic (2014) amongst many short films and working in all areas of the media as well as being a graphic designer and a self-confessed geek with a love for film, comics, toys and trainers. His work can be seen here: www.bursteardrum.net 

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