Saturday, September 16, 2006

Review - Children of Men

Cinema’s view of the future has never been a particularly optimistic one. For decades we have been presented with endless bleak visions of dystopian worlds plagued by violence, ruled by fear, and lacking in human warmth. Filmmakers have taken a look at the world we live in, and from that they have extrapolated only harsh times ahead for the human race. The future for planet earth is not bright.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men ticks all the usual boxes for a cinematic view of times ahead. There’s a society falling into anarchy, rebel violence on the streets, a yawning gulf between the few haves and the many have-nots, and a decline into oblivion which seems irrevocable. Children of Men takes place in a world where human beings can no longer procreate, no child has been born in over 18 years, and society has begun tearing itself apart as the inevitable end approaches. But this is not as distant a nightmare as you might imagine: This is London in the year 2027.

Why is the human race infertile? We don’t know, and we never find out. Pollution, genetic testing and drug use are suggested as possible factors, but for the most part it’s simply presented as a fact of life which has driven Earth’s population to madness. A TV screen displays scenes of terror and violence from around the globe, and refugees fleeing their homelands are flooding into London, only to be held in immigrant camps liked caged animals. Many Londoners seem to have accepted their fate, and adverts are widespread for an easy-to-use suicide kit called Quietus, providing a peaceful way out for anyone who can’t bear to stick around for the end of days.

But for most people life, such as it is, goes on; and one man just trying to get by is Theo Faron (Clive Owen). When the film opens he narrowly avoids being blown up in one of the regular acts of random violence which punctuate daily life, and a rattled Theo takes refuge with his old friend Jasper (Michael Caine), an ageing hippy who has plenty of theories about infertility and talks about the mythical ‘Human Project’ which may yet save us. Theo doesn’t seem interested in these ideas, but he’s dragged into the midst of the struggle when he is contacted by Julian (Julianne Moore), his former partner who now runs with a rebel/terrorist group, and who needs his help. They have an African refugee named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who must be smuggled out of London to meet up with the Human Project. Miraculously, Kee is eight months pregnant.

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón and British crime writer PD James may seem an unlikely match, but his adaptation of her rare foray into science-fiction is an inspired piece of work which transcends its genre conventions to create a genuinely thrilling, moving and provocative look at the future we’re making for ourselves. Cuarón has shown his taste for the most unlikely material - going from raunchy road movie Y tu Mamá También to Harry Potter with ease - and Children of Men is his best film yet. The director infuses the action with a nervous energy and paranoia, shooting entirely with handheld cameras, and he presents us with a vision of London in 20 years which is all too plausible.

The brilliance of Children of Men’s production design and camerawork cannot be overstated. In imagining what the London of 2027 may look like, the filmmakers haven’t overhauled the capital’s architecture or décor, but they’ve made subtle changes which reflect the crumbling society and sense of despair which is prevalent. Through the suitably grey and dreary cinematography, we see locations we recognise but not as we’ve ever seen them before; Admiralty Arch is now a heavily guarded checkpoint and Battersea Power Station is a refuge for a rich art collector. Cuarón often just gives us brief glimpses of the surrounding decay through the windows of buses and trains; glimpses which are more than enough to paint a scarily realistic picture of a city on the brink of collapse. He links many of the film’s images and themes back to the subjects of today’s headlines - fertility rates, immigration, pollution, terrorism - arguing that this world is what awaits us if these issues are left to fester.

Cuarón’s ability to craft a convincing environment for his film isn’t in doubt, but with Children of Men he also displays an extraordinary ability to create breathlessly thrilling action sequences, most of which are shot in long, unbroken takes. In particular, there are two scenes in this film which rank among the most exciting and nerve-wracking pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen for some time. The first occurs when the car Theo, Kee and Julian are travelling is ambushed on a country road, and their desperate attempts to escape are filmed in one seemingly continuous take with the camera never leaving the inside of the vehicle. Instead, Cuarón swings his camera around the car’s interior to focus on the passengers’ panic-stricken faces. It’s a bravura sequence, but the best is yet to come. Late in the film Theo finds himself in the middle of a refugee uprising, forcing him to make his way through a war zone to be reunited with Kee, and Cuarón films his perilous journey in a single jaw-dropping 12-minute take. Gunfire pings around his ears, buildings explode, people die by the dozen, and we follow Theo every single step of the way as this incredible passage of filmmaking leads to a moving conclusion. When the sequence had ended I was left exhausted, exhilarated and tearful; it’s simply magnificent stuff.

The director also does wonderful work with his actors. The shambling, sleepy-eyed Theo may not initially seem a likely hero, but Owen’s sensitive and nuanced performance gives him a depth and decency which grows throughout the film as he comes to realise the importance of his role. As Jasper, Michael Caine is having the time of his life, and his enthusiasm is infectious; and young Claire-Hope Ashitey is impressive in the pivotal role of Kee. In fact, the one misstep may be from the usually excellent Julianne Moore. She’s not bad in her role, but she’s a little cold and distant and never really comes to life as a character; and her chemistry with Owen is negligible. However, there are terrific supporting turns from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Pam Ferris to enjoy, and Peter Mullan’s fantastically funny/scary cameo is a treat.

Cuarón’s ability to walk that funny/scary tightrope is superb, and he never fails to give the film’s standard set-pieces or genre clichés a neat little twist - for example, a car chase in which Owen has to push his rickety old banger for half of it, or the decision to have the hero in flip-flops for much of the film. There are lovely little sight gags too, like the faded old ‘London 2012’ top which Theo wears. Thoughtful touches like this give Children of Men a genuine sense of life, setting it apart from the usual futuristic fare.
Children of Men is about as intelligent, gripping and adult as mainstream cinema gets; it’s a film which delivers a spectacular visual spectacle, but also touches the heart and leaves you with food for thought. How far away are we from a world which resembles this? If this is what awaits us, then how can humanity alter its slide towards self-destruction? Children of Men does offer a small note of hope in a world gone mad; but it reminds us that our fate is ultimately in our own hands, and the future is just around the corner.