PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 August, 2009, 12:00am

Starring: Isabelle Fuhrman, Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Aryanna Engineer

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Category: III

With Orphan, Jaume Collet-Serra has drawn condemnation for his film's portrayal of an adopted child as a violent interloper and bemusement for a pathological twist critics deem too outlandish. But one thing is certain: the Spanish director has ended Isabelle Fuhrman's career as a child actor. Having outshone her adult co-stars as a menacing bad seed, the 12-year-old is unlikely to appear in a cuddly and sweet role soon.

Perhaps ironically, this very effective Category III thriller is driven by its young stars: Fuhrman (above), as the sociopathic Esther, finds good company in Jimmy Bennett and Aryanna Engineer, who play the girl's siblings in her new adopted family. Bennett is effective as Daniel, the pubescent schoolboy whose preteen angst - and disdain for anything beyond WASP culture - drives him to reject his new 'sister'. Even better is Engineer, who plays the deaf-mute Max, the toddler whose life spirals into nightmare as she's coerced into covering Esther's increasingly murderous misdeeds.

In one of the film's most interesting (and hilarious) scenes, the family is having dinner when Daniel and Esther have a row. Noting how meticulously she carves her meat before eating, he says her dining habits are only normal 'in Transylvania or whatever country you're from'. Esther nonchalantly retorts that she's actually from Russia: 'Transylvania isn't even a country. It's a part of Romania.' The scene unfolds in front of the pair's parents, Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard), who are obviously unable to contend with Esther's wit and Daniel's wrath.

While Collet-Serra is due credit for keeping tension at a low boil, it's the acting that brings Orphan up a notch. The film's narrative follows the classic route of films such as The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, in which an innocent looking addition to the household slowly reveals herself to be a deadly home-wrecker, who drives a wedge between a couple in marital trouble. Likewise in Orphan, Esther plays John against Kate, using the former's past infidelity and the latter's drinking problems and failed pregnancy to her benefit.

All of this leads to the denouement, when the answer to the film's tagline - what's wrong with Esther - is provided. The screenplay includes small gestures and behavioural quirks that hint at the answer, but Fuhrman's nuanced turn proves pivotal. Her precise performance as a sophisticated, immaculately attired and excessively mature girl pave the way for the end revelation.

While not really pioneering - and one could certainly take umbrage over the clich?d devices that play to the well-entrenched Euro-American fears of anything emerging from the eastern reaches of Europe - Orphan does offer a thrilling take on the evil-child genre.

Orphan opens today