Sunday, January 14, 2007

In Theaters: Children of Men

[Image from CanMag again.]

I avoided CHILDREN OF MEN at first, as I suspect many people did, because it just looked too grim to endure. I have said it before and I will say it again- pop culture has been pretty dark for a while, and the holiday awards season has just intensified the problem, because all serious Oscar contenders are inevitably about very sad things. But I finally made an exception, as should all of you if you haven't already. CHILDREN OF MEN is indeed a film about a grim subject, but it is not a grim film. It is warm, humanistic, thrilling, passionate, and even, on occasion, funny. It may well be the best film of the past year, and would be a triumph of cinematic craft and of the science fiction genre in any year.

The film, set in 2026, opens in a coffee shop in London, where a reporter announces the stabbing death of the world's youngest person- an 18-year-old boy named Diego. A crowd, mostly middle-aged or older, stands stunned and choking back sobs as Theo (Clive Owen) weaves blithely through to get a coffee, and walks back out into the smoky, crowded, polluted streets. He has not walked far when the shop explodes behind him. For some reason, no new babies have been born in nearly two decades, and civilization is giving up. The UK, one of the few countries (possibly the only country) not completely ravaged by war and chaos, has closed its borders, and a terrorist group called the Fishes, representing the illegal refugees who are captured and deported by the busload, battles with the government. Theo is contacted by his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), who is working with the Fishes to try and escort a girl named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) safely to the coast. As a mid-level government clerk, Theo is able to secure travel papers, but only if he travels with the girl. On the road, the car is attacked by bandits, Julian is killed, and the survivors take refuge at a Fishes safehouse, where Kee reveals to Theo why she is so important; she is pregnant. Since the girl is an illegal immigrant, the Fishes plan to use her baby as a political tool, so Theo and former hospital midwife Miriam (Pam Ferris) help her to escape from them and continue to the coast, hoping to deliver woman and child safely to the Human Project, a group of scientists working to solve the fertility problem.

Adapted from a P.D. James novel, the film establishes its dystopic future in broad strokes and short vignettes. Posters and TV advertisements urging citizens to report illegal immigrants appear everywhere; a drug called "Quietus" , effectively a suicide pill, is promoted by the government with a promise of cash benefits to next of kin; two eccentric aesthetes live in an abandoned factory with works of art salvaged from all over the world, dealing with the despair by utterly ignoring it. The hows and whys of the fertility problem (indeed, whether it's men or women or both who have the problem) are never explained, nor is its apparent solution; like the zombies in George Romero's "Living Dead" films, the infertility is there to trigger the downfall of civilization, though it could be argued it started before then anyway.

That the film is not as depressing as it could have been is quite a feat. Of course, by its nature the plotline implies hope for humanity's survival, but Alfonso Cuarón and a battery of screenwriters quite specifically make sure that we are reminded why humanity is worth saving to start with. Many people in this film do awful things to each other, but just as many show compassion and kindness, acting in an almost parental way to the oft-in-dire-need-of-aid protagonists. Just as importantly, there are moments of warmth and wit and humor sprinkled throughout, never so heavily as to break the mood altogether but enough that we aren't completely crushed by the dire importance of everything that happens. The visuals reflect the subtle shifts in tone well; much of what we see is under slate-grey skies and in oppressively drab and grimy interiors, but there are rays of sunlight and green plants as well. And quite a lot of animals, unsubtly reminding us that mankind is just another species and our survival can't be taken for granted.

In some ways this is actually an action movie, but a very old-fashioned one. Cuarón does not go for quick cuts or impossibly shaky camera moves; instead, the action unfolds naturally and brutally in long takes (there is a single sequence composed as a very long shot, noted in publicity, that I never noticed because what cuts there are in the film are invisible) and with a straightforwardness that undercuts their basic horror. The director shows an almost Hitchcockian flair for designing setpieces that are both intense in and of themselves and integral to the plot; you notice the level of craft, but only in passing as the narrative sweeps you ever forward. Though the film is rife with violence, it's often futile or sinister, at best regrettable; Theo never carries or uses a gun, even when afforded opportunities, and those who do take up arms inevitably drift out of our sympathies. War and politics are both shown as inevitable pursuits of man, but ultimately secondary in importance to the basic business of survival.

Clive Owen has a strong screen presence, as he demonstrated ably early last year in INSIDE MAN, and he is excellently cast here as, in a way, the representative of a society without hope. Ashitey, a virtual newcomer, gives Kee a wit and sparkle that helps cement the character as a person and not a plot device. Chiwetel Ejiofor, also from INSIDE MAN as well as the thoroughly excellent SERENITY and generally having very good taste in scripts, has an interesting part as Fishes leader Luke, never wholly good or evil. Michael Caine has a crucial role as Jasper, a classic hippie activist and former political cartoonist who lives in the woods growing cannabis and attending to his wife, a photojournalist tortured by the government and now catatonic. Caine, so often underutilized, reminds us once more of how good he can be given the right part; Jasper provides much of the film's warmth and spirit in the relatively short time he appears.

There were times in this film I came close to weeping. Others where I thought I couldn't bear the drama anymore. This is definitely a film for our frightening and fucked-up times, but it points a way forward like few others do. It is a reminder that life, in all its agonies and joys, must always be valued above all things, a concept which few disagree with on paper but which always seems to get lost, despite thousands of years of religion and philosophy essentially making the same point over and over. Of course, a film isn't good or bad because of its point, but rather how it makes it. And CHILDREN OF MEN hits its mark as solidly as one could hope for. It is passionate, it is sophisticated, and it is a thing of beauty.

See it now.

From the novel by P.D. James
Screenplay by Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Grade: A

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