This Friday Night at the Movies, I saw Children of Men, the latest offering from Alfonso Cuaron, whose deft touch made Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban stand head and shoulders above the rest of the series. He brings his “A” game in his latest.
Critics seem to love Children of Men, and I can’t help but to agree. It is gritty, intense, and as beautiful as it is bleak. The plot is a straightforward post-apocalyptic roadtrip. It’s kind of like Cyborg meets 1984, with a dash of Y: The Last Man thrown in for good measure. I know that sounds like it would suck, but the end result is all kinds of awesome.
In a world where humanity has become mysteriously infertile, Clive Owen is a disillusioned former activist who finds himself the unwitting guardian of a mysteriously pregnant young girl. The film tells the story of their journey to the coast of Britain, dodging a repressive state and dangerous revolutionaries along the way. The film never explains why no one is able to procreate, nor does it delve into why Kee is an exception. The sci-fi angle is not what Cuaron is interested in. He focuses more on what the world is like after the onset of a slow apocalypse, offering a compelling portrait of a world without hope. The British government in the film is taking its xenophobia to Fourth-Reichian levels, while the people seek solace in new religious cults. Owen is too apathetic, and we first meet him drifting aimlessly through his life. While everyone gathers to mourn the death of the world’s youngest person (an eighteen year old), Owen is barely aware enough to order his coffee. His complacency is broken by an explosion, as a terrorist bombing shakes him from his walking sleep. From there he meets up with his ex-wife, who has become a leader of the Fishes the terrorists responsible for the attack. It is his ex-wife, portrayed by Julianne Moore, who recruits him for the mission.
Cuaron takes the “show don’t tell” admonitions of a thousand freshman writing instructors to heart. The back story is told largely through panning shots of bulletin boards and photo displays, with a few overheard stories. The storytelling is subtle without becoming overly elliptical. The world of the film is decidedly and understandably run down. What’s the point of keeping streets clean when the entire race will be soon be extinct? One of the most striking scenes is Owen meeting with his cousin, who acts as caretaker for the several priceless pieces of art. Locked away from the common people, in a less-grungy part of the city, the broken man eats dinner with Guernica behind him and a shattered David out in the hall.
Across the board, the film is well shot. There are several long take tracking takes, usually during moments of intense violence. It really ratchets up the tension, as my eye kept looking for some kind of cut or camera switch to distract from the action. The performances are strong, though I did grow slightly irritated with Michael Caine’s aging hippy.
If you haven’t seen it, you really should. It might not be the most rollicking, fun-loving film at the theatre this week, but its well worth the time. As with any film about the future, it can be hard to resist drawing parallels with today’s political climate. But it is subtle, and the story is about personal loss and redemption, not society’s. Though the characters inhabit a doomed world and move through its dystopian landscape with out the benefit a future, the movie never becomes bloated on its own gloom. It is, after all, a film about hope.