Monday, October 23, 2006

Children of Men Film Review

Children of Men is the latest from Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, who has previously given us 'Y tu Mama Tambien' and 'HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban'. His screenplay is adapted from the 1992 novel of the same name by legendary British crime writer - my personal favourite - PD James.

In a nightmarishly Dystopian near-future, no child has been born in 18 years and the human race appears doomed to extinction within a lifetime. London of 2027 has all but become a police state, with 'fugees' - 'illegal' immigrants - regularly rounded up in cages and sent off to former coastal resort towns like Bexhill, which now operate as Naziesque death camps. The city is filthy, decaying and utterly devoid of hope, as personified by the protagonist Theodore 'Theo' Faron (Clive Owen), a former activist who has sunk into a depressing, futile non-existence as a public servant. Theo's near-death from a bomb explosion sets off a chain of events as he is caught up with a group of 'terrorists', led by his ex-lover Julian (Julianne Moore), who may just hold the key to humankind's salvation.

As you've probably guessed, CoM is not a laugh-a-minute movie, unless you're the sort of person who found 1984 a lightweight romp. I did a review of James' novel back in high school and it's always been one of my favourites, particularly as it is such an unconventional story for James to write but demonstrates her unique capacity for literary fiction as well as 'just' crime fiction.

Interestingly, however, there is quite a diversion between James' and Cuaron's visions. No doubt due to the 14-year gap between the release of book and film, Cuaron focuses more heavily on the elements of xenophobic oppression - of the fear and hatred of non-Anglo residents sustained through generating mistrust and paranoia. Everywhere there are ads and signs of reporting suspicious activity - a logical extension, perhaps, of 'being alert but not alarmed' and 'if you see it, report it'. The movie, with a post-September 11 context not found in the novel, has a clear anti-fascist, anti-nationalist agenda and will no doubt be dismissed from some on the right as lefty, feel-good pro-multicultural 'mushiness'.

James, however, could hardly be considered left-wing, given her conservative background (she sat in the House of Lords for the Tories and I believe was a good friend of Thatcher's), and there is greater focus in her novel on the tragedy of a 'world without children's voices'. In the novel, women yearning to express maternal instincts walk around pathetically with china dolls or kittens dressed as babies in prams. Such images are not conveyed in the film, although there is one illustrative scene in which Theo and Miriam (Pam Ferris), a former mid-wife, visit a primary school, which is now abandoned, vandalised and decrepit, and another where Theo and Julian ran past a junk-heap by a railway line that includes a broken, upturned pram.

Despite the divergence in agendas, however, both are first-rate examples of storytelling. Cuaron's most effective direction technique is his extended tracking shots - some running to nearly 10 minutes - which create a sense of immediacy and make difficult for the audience to anticipate what might happen next. This is particularly powerful in the finale, which is essentially a war zone conflict where every character on screen, including Theo, could be randomly exterminated in a split second from a stray bullet.

Acting is uniformly first-rate, including Owen, who I've otherwise never been able to find as skilful or compelling as many others appear to. He is perfectly suited to the role of a protagonist caught up by circumstance who relucantly becomes heroic only when it becomes clear there is literally nobody left to be so. Michael Caine has possibly his best role since 'Cider House Rules', marvellous as a ganja-smoking hippie with a comatose wife. Other roles are also well-serviced by a cast of superior British performers, including Ferris, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Charlie Hunnam. Only Moore, who I usually like, feels out-of-place. My friend and I both determined this role would have been perfect for Kate Winslet and it's a pity the powers that be determined at least one American star was required, no doubt to get the bums-on-seats in the US and therefore ensure profit.

All other elements of the film just work effortlessly: the soundtrack is moving, editing seamless and design striking. This should feature strongly at the 2007 Oscars in all key categories.

Be warned: CoM is very, very heavy-going. It's not a date film, but as big-budget movies are increasingly dumbed down (for dumbed-down audiences?), this is a vitally-important exception to the trend that should be seen by all genuine fans of film.

Perhaps the best way I can summarise the difference between book and film is that one is a woman's vision of a dystopian future, and one is a man's. But both are worth reading and viewing. CoM the movie is shocking, devastating, terrifying and also, mercifully, quite humorous in places.

My inner Margaret gives CoM 4.5 stars between choked sobs, and my stoic inner David gives it 4.


At 23/10/06 1:25 pm, Blogger Jellyfish said...

Thanks! Goddamn, I am so excited to go and see this. Been looking forward to it for ages. *GEEK!*

At 23/10/06 1:58 pm, Blogger Sam said...

Heheh - you and me both Jelly :P

At 23/10/06 4:08 pm, Blogger cvm said...

Wonderful review Sam.

The Michael Caine character was the one who did it for me, he brings such a wonderful sense of humanity to the whole thing. I'm normally the David-esque stoic viewer and i blubbed like a little girl.

At 24/10/06 8:54 am, Blogger TimT said...

It was a great film. It did have a political agenda, but that was fair enough, since it picked up on some of the worst aspects of politics today (the deporting of illegal immigrants, terrorism, rising crime, etc). You wouldn't be able to watch it the same way in another ten years - it's a kind of exaggerated version of the present.
There's another book that this film bears similarities to, 'Greybeard' by Brian Aldiss.

I saw this film after drinking one beer, one short black, and one tall cappucino, and I was on a constant nervy edge all the way through - so the 'disturbing' factor of the film was kind of made even more disturbing for me!

At 24/10/06 9:01 am, Blogger TimT said...

BTW, it is a film with a sense of humour, only a very very very VERY very very black one. Like the fact it's set in an England that is falling apart because of crime and war and terrorism, only, it's not disaffected youth (at least, disaffected youth under the age of 18) who are causing all this, it's cranky old bastards! Or of course Michael Caine's great role as a philosophical, ganja-smoking old hippy, definitely worth a couple of laughs.

At 24/10/06 6:16 pm, Anonymous Stonie said...

Good review Sam. I'm keen to see this. While i'm no apologist for some of Michael Caine's films (Jaws 3 anyone?), he's done some good things since Cider House - what about The Quiet American? Possibly his best role in my view.


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