The Theory of Chaos

Monday, January 08, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Children of Men

Full review behind the jump

Children of Men

: Alfonso Cuarón
: screenplay by Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, based on the novel by P.D. James
: Marc Abraham, Eric Newman, Hilary Shor, Iain Smith, Tony Smith
: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, Michael Caine, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Pam Ferris, Danny Huston, Peter Mullan

Some movies you love for their technique, some for the emotion they inspire. Although the experience of going to the movies involves the interplay between the two, it is rare enough that either aspect will truly separate from the pack, to permanently etch itself into that place of experiences we treasure.

Children of Men
, the new film by director Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) contains shots of such dazzling audacity that at one point I was physically thrown back in my chair – they rank on the short list of the most accomplished Steadicam compositions ever put in service of a narrative film.

But here’s the thing – I also cried, and it is
much more difficult to get that out of me than the admiration of cinematic polish. I remembered what Roger Ebert once said about how he doesn’t cry when people in movies are sad, he cries when they are good. The technical brilliance of Cuarón and his collaborators behind the camera would just be an anecdote if it weren’t tuned to the task of creating a world where despair is all-consuming and hope washed away to the smallest and darkest corners. It is in that world that one man’s decision to just be good produces tears, and one of the year’s most powerful films.

It’s a generation into the future, and the world looks much like ours only grayer, more angry and grief-stricken. Office employees seem to spend their days staring at monitors and weeping. The human race has lost hope, because it has stopped having children.

No explanation is offered as to why no woman can get pregnant, though the best minds left in the world are said to be working on the problem in some unknown place. In the vein of much of the best science fiction it is allegorical, not so much about the “how” of it, but caring more about “what would happen if?” We are told that most of the world’s major cities have fallen due to terrorism and religious warfare, but Britain is scraping by on its little island, mostly by rounding up the globe’s refugees in cages and walled-off slums to keep them out. Militant hatred of the suffering is the average man’s comfort, and “resistance” groups are so consumed by internal power struggles and Marxist toy solider fantasies that they don’t know who’s bombing who any more. Television screens play beguiling commercials for a suicide pill called “Quietus”; it promises to send us to those same halcyon fields today’s users of acid-reflux medicine enjoy, only permanently.

In this world Theodore Faron (Clive Owen, compellingly morose as is his gift) leads his lonely life. Once an impassioned hellraiser, now he spends his on hours drinking at the office, and his off hours drinking at the hidden marijuana farm of Jasper Palmer (Michael Caine). Palmer’s a former political cartoonist who, in his own poignant way, strives to keep love and a playful spite of the establishment alive in just one corner of his blighted homeland; for himself and, especially, in tribute to the wife he still adores. I don’t think Faron goes there for his own happiness, but just to witness someone else who’s still capable of it. There’s a joy in seeing Caine as a shambling long-haired mischief-maker, the casting allows even smaller players to shine, like Peter Mullan (The Claim, The Magdalene Sisters) as a policeman who constantly refers to himself in the third person, perhaps because he knows he can beat anyone who finds it silly.

Out of nowhere, Faron is contacted by his ex-wife (Julianne Moore), who disappeared into one of those resistance groups years ago and now has a very important job she wants him to perform. Why does she choose him for this job, this job that at this moment in history might be more important than any on Earth? Part of the story’s elegant design is that there is not only a practical spoken purpose, but one which is unspoken. I think she’s living with foreknowledge of the tragedy ahead, the one circumstances don’t allow her to warn him about. And then there are the emotional reasons – also a mix of spoken and unspoken.

The job involves a very frightened young woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey), and transport through security checkpoints and refugee ghettos to a boat which may or may not be waiting for them; may or may not, in fact, even exist. That is not as important as the journey, and whether Faron can overcome not just the obstacles in his path and the enemies at his heels but the cynicism and self-loathing which infected all of humanity. Those who love great storytelling will not find much new in the structure of Children of Men, but will appreciate how solidly it proceeds, how true it is to its characters and its world.

This is where the camerawork is key – it put me in mind of that quote from Jean Luc-Godard about how in cinema, every cut is a lie. It is not just a lie, it is a distancing act, a reminder that you are only looking at what has been placed in front of you, it does not surround you. Children of Men wants to deny you the relief of the cut, and offers as little as it can get away with – scenes play out in shots of relentless, almost agonizing length. The camera prowls among the characters down sidewalks, up stairwells, through light and dark, choking us with just how little relief there is from the fear in their lives. Director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki and camera operator George Richmond deserve special mention for their achievement – it is often the technician’s charge to remain invisible, here their work is a visible, and essential, element of the experience.

David Mamet wrote a book on screenwriting called 3 Uses of the Knife, in it he talks about how an object, used for different tasks at different times, can speak volumes about the growth of a character and the progress of a story, and can move audiences by telescoping all the feeling in the world into the smallest gesture. Faron is never without his bottle of whiskey, he drinks from it to drown the pain, and escape the endless dread. Watch in a climactic moment how, without even thinking about it, he puts that whiskey to a different use. The triumph of Children of Men is how it compels us to believe that if a man like this can remember what he is supposed to do in this moment, what goodness demands of him, then maybe it’s true what they say – that it’s always darkest before the dawn.


  • I did not enjoy this film. I don't understand the critical acclaim that it is getting. There are a lot of loose ends that were never tied up,a lot of information missing for the viewer. The abrupt ending did nothing but startle the audience.
    I did however like the fact that he used a hand held camera to shoot the film. I did like the character played by Michael Cane.
    The movie made me tired. The constant grey effect,dark and dingy palate made me wonder why he did not shoot the whole movie in black and white.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:15 AM  

  • I enjoyed it because of what, for me, was a virtuosic union of technique and emotion, neither of which is ultimately objective - because even technique is only as effective as the extent to which it achieves its intended goal in the audience.

    If you didn't respond to the movie, I can't talk you out of that, and you should always encourage and explore your own response as a way to become a more active viewer. For me it was overwhelming.

    Your point about how the movie might have played in black-and-white is thought-provoking, but I think ultimately there was power in the contrast between the usual gray palette and the flashes of color we would get - in Michael Caine's character's home, or that seemingly endless green hill where they flee in the stalled car.

    By Blogger Nick, at 9:45 AM  

  • The film knocked out of my apathetic little shell to a place where I wished for the violence to cease and the shelling to end. There was no relief to be had. And the familiar images in the detainment center will haunt me for some time. Well written, Nick. On a lighter note, I am still struggling with what my favorite line from this past year has been: "Pull my finger", or "Who let this IRA motherfucker in my bar?" I sincerely hope Cuaron is thrust in snugly between Scorsese and Eastwood in the Best Director race.

    By Anonymous Michael De Luca, at 10:36 PM  

  • Excellent film! Among the best I have every enjoyed. No question. I don't quite understand those who don't like this film. I'm not sure I want to.

    By Blogger Mark, at 2:09 PM  

  • Amazing Movie! Overwhelming is definitely the right word. I loved every second of it.

    It's totally different to the book though. I usually don't like movies based on books because they are so different from the books and lose so much but this movie was totally different.

    By Blogger Nick Rowan, at 7:14 AM  

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