Thursday, 20 May 2010

This is the first baby born in 20 years and you want to name it Froley?

No 380 – Children of Men

Director – Alfonso Cuaron

Recently I’ve been watching a lot of silly shallow films. Explosions and pithy banter. It is time to break away from that, but to ask an important question. How can this film be so many places below a piece of tosh like Transformers?

Really people? I’m a bit disappointed.

I had actually forgotten what a harrowing yet beautiful film this is and how masterfully it tackles its mission. To not only convey the future, but to show a future where there is no hope, nothing to live for. The last generation of a dying species. Let me, for the last time, return to Transformers for an important comparison. In Children of Men we have a science fiction story which requires a lot of exposition. However here we get to witness it through snatches of conversation, snippets of news. Pictures and scenarios. We don’t have a scene where Morpheus spells out what the Matrix is. We don’t have a scene where Optimus Prime pulls out holograms and explains what is happening. We’re left to piece the snatches of information together. It means you're forever piecing information together, but it is nice to be treated like an adult.

Let me just tell you the two main points though:

1) Women have stopped having children. They just can’t do it.

2) The world has subsequently fallen to shit.

Like other totalitarian states (V for Vendetta springs to mind), the government has spread a vast amount of propaganda and patriotic vitriol to make people wary of the non-British - especially illegal immigrants. This is the end of the world under BNP rule... Like other apocalyptic films (The Road springs to mind), the world is a dangerous place with death hanging around every corner.

It is all summed up perfectly in a shocking opening montage. Firstly we see that it is the future. We’re only in the 2020’s so everything looks fairly similar to how it does now. Only technology is more advanced. Especially with advertising. There is an explosion in a coffee shop, sending Clive Owen's protagonist Theo hurtling to the ground. Amongst smoke, destruction and a piercing tinnitus whine, we see a lady holding her own arm and then BAM! Titles. Welcome to Children of Men, don’t expect an easy ride. We are in a dangerous world. Futile and nihilistic. A world where the government prescribes anti-depressants, and when that stops working, suicide kits. The atmosphere is perfect, every building sprawled with graffiti, piles of rubbish everywhere. Police brutality is rife, as is violent mobs attacking trains or commuters. You are forced to walk past the screaming, starving, terrified asylum seekers who are kept in horrific open-air prisons. It is like Guantanamo Bay on your high street. But it isn’t heavy handed. It is just there.

This film never screams at you that “LIFE IS SHIT” – you just pick it up from what is happening.

Likewise the film never says “THIS IS IN THE FUTURE”. It doesn’t have to. It is there in the technology and it is there in the little touches. My absolute favourite being Theo’s worn and faded London 2012 sweatshirt. A touch which show the thought and beautiful subtlety strewn throughout the entire film.

It is not only the film’s world which is superb, the acting and characters also rock. Throughout it, there are two stand-out performances. The first is a constant source of excellence… Michael Caine. I find it so impressive, for a man who can hardly blend into a part (It's Michael Caine… the man has one of the most distinctive voices ever) he brings such richness and such variety to his roles. And he is a phenomenal actor. If we focus on modern ‘Old Man’ Caine, he is permanently the best thing in his films. When he is the star of a film he brings incredible depth and emotion, even in the nastiest of subjects. When he appears as a cameo he steals the show. Regardless of whether it is a tentpole blockbuster, a flawed comedy or a musical flanked by Muppets. And it is ruddy hard to steal the show from a musical flanked by Muppets.

Here, he plays Jasper. A political activist, a bit of a hippy, a drug dealer. Also one of the happiest people in the film. Which is odd, specially seeing how the government may have tortured and paralysed his wife. His house is a cozy haven in the middle of a wood. He is the only bastion of relaxing niceness in this harsh and uncompromising film.

The other incredible turn is, surprisingly, Clive Owen. We see him in fairly familiar territory – in that he is a lone gunman protecting a woman and her baby from corrupt officials (or activists in this case). Only here, the baby is the only hope for the future of humanity, the mother is an illegal immigrant and the corrupt activists want to use the baby as a political catalyst and inspire an uprising.

Unlike Shoot-em-Up though, Clive Owen acts. Really rather well. He spends the entire film downtrodden and busted up. In terrible fights where he gets bloodied and tortured. Hiding in the shit and the litter. Throughout it all he is the reticent hero, slowly bonding to with his quarry. He is tired, he is in pain, he is a fragile wreck of emotion.

A shocking scene (of which this film has many) fairly early on involves Julianne Moore’s character and shows the full range of Owen’s emotion. However, even that is blown away at the cold blank dead practicality that overcomes him with later events (including his goodbye to Jasper).

It is a film in which everything is lightly touched on. The realisation that Kee (the immigrant girl) is pregnant is handled almost matter of factly. The magic comes from the reactions – especially after she gives birth. To see how each person melts in shock and awe. To see the goose-pimpling way that people react to the baby. To see how hope is instilled in a hopeless world. I didn’t want to go straight to the end of the film, as I have other stuff to talk about. Stuff about brutality and horror, but this is the right place to discuss it.

The film culminates in a tower block which is crumbling and which is under siege from the military. Theo and Kee are trying to escape to where they’ll be looked after by The Human Project, a top secret hospital organisation trying to bring babies back to the world. It begins with a dizzying Steadicam shot following Theo and soaking in the horror of the attack. Wailing bodies and rubble everywhere. It is slickly and effortlessly done. Like so much of the film it occurs without fanfare (unlike the beautiful, but heavily signposted shot in Atonement) and then it is gone. Leaving us with Theo and Kee escaping the siege. At first they try to hide, but the baby’s tears draw attention and the battle ceases momentarily for the two sides to part and let through this vitally important trio. Cue close-ups on faces. Heartbreaking mixes of exhaustion, desperation, hope and awe.

That is the thing I like about this film. None of the elements are showy, but they're right. They're in the right place and they work beautifully.

It may be a touch heavy-handed but my goodness it is beautiful. It gives me chills and that is important. Especially as it comes at the end of a horrific series of events in the near Nazi-like Bexhill Asylum Camp, where the asylum seekers are left… to die. It is also important because not all the characters react to Kee’s baby in the same way. Whilst most are filled with joy and wonder (previously intimidating foreign characters become allies and heroes) some see the financial gain in such an important commodity and become really horrible (all the more shocking when those characters started off so funny).

This film is an experience. It is bleak and it is sombre; and whilst the ending is ambiguous, it hints at hope. Hope swaddled in the blankets of utter misery. My goodness what a beautiful film.

How criminal for it to be voted so far below some utter tosh.

2 comments:

PhilH said...

Nearly watched this again a couple of days ago, but my flatmate wasn't in the mood. It's brilliant.

Simon Varwell said...

I quite agree with your sentiments. This is an amazing film - a film where you become so urgently attached to the main characters, and where the portrayal of the world is just enough to be convincing without, as you say, being in your face.

The single-shot scenes (the car chase, the rescue in the tower, the opening etc etc) are also fantastic; not only technically but also because they demand your attention and prevent you from looking away or blinking.

I really love this film (it's probably in my top five), and you've summed it up nicely Tim.