Monday, January 08, 2007
Shantih, Shantih, Shantih.
There's an almost inaudible ring on the soundtrack of Children of Men after each of the film's sudden bursts of violence. It is, as one character explains, the last hurrah of ear cells about to die. The sound is at the heart of Children of Men, a film set in a near-future where humanity is on the verge of ending not with a bang but a whimper. It's an unflinching vision of our darkest fears about the direction our world is headed in, yet the film never feels oppressive or nihilistic. Instead, director Alfonso Cuaron has made a film that inspires genuine faith in the potential of the human spirit in the face of its own self-destruction.
Based on a novel by PD James, Children of Men takes place in 2027, when war and environmental destruction have left most of the world in chaos (the screenplay wisely avoids much exposition, as the characters mention catastrophic events around the world with the same familiarity that we reference 9/11). The only city left standing is a London overrun by violence; the city has become a place where refugees are imprisoned in internment camps and suicide pills are available over the counter. The film opens with news of the death of the youngest person on the planet - "Baby Diego," age 18. For unknown reasons, women are no longer able to conceive, and the end of humankind appears to be just around the corner. Theo (Clive Owen), a former activist who now works as a low-level government drone, has responded naturally, living in a state of depressed indifference. He spends his days getting drunk and occasionally visiting his friend Jasper (Michael Caine), a dope-smoking peacenik who lives in a secluded house with his catatonic wife. Theo's routine is interrupted when he is suddenly contacted by Julian (Julianne Moore), his ex-wife, who now works for a subversive pro-immigration group called the Fishes. Julian wants Theo to help her secretly transport a young refugee across the country. Theo eventually learns that the young woman, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), is pregnant, and it becomes clear how much is at stake.
The film is structured like a classical Hollywood thriller, as Theo and Kee race across England, pursued by revolutionaries who want the child to help advance their own cause. But in many ways, Children of Men is an incredible step forward in the art of cinema, both technically and emotionally. Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki employ a remarkable strategy of desaturated colors, handheld camerawork, and natural light to create a future that feels remarkably immediate, underscoring the connection between this possible future and our own uncertain present. And the much-talked-about, seemingly unbroken shots that last as long as ten minutes aren't a gimmick as they were in Russian Ark, for instance. They strengthen our identification with Theo as he ends up in increasingly nightmarish situations. What Cuaron has achieved here cannot be underestimated; it's not that he invented the techniques on display here, but rather, as Welles did with Citizen Kane or Kubrick with 2001, he gives them newfound conceptual depth. He has made the camera an invisible, ground-level presence; we barely have time to stop and marvel at the cinematic trickery, immersed as we are in the world of the film. Cuaron, director of the wonderfully horny Y Tu Mama Tambien and the best Harry Potter film, reveals himself here as a pioneer, and Children of Men is a milestone in the evolution of cinematic language.
That said, the emotional weight of the film rests solely on the shoulders of Clive Owen, who rises to the occasion admirably. Theo is a man whose sould has been deadened by personal and global tragedy, and Owen wisely underplays every moment. The performance recalls Bogart in Casablanca (a film that shares a great deal of DNA with this one); it's exhilarating to watch Theo, who once tried to change the world before giving in to grief and apathy, rediscover his soul. Julianne Moore is heartbreaking as Julian - with a minimum of exposition, you can see the entire history of their relationship in her eyes. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Pam Ferris and Peter Mullan do strong work in complex supporting roles. Michael Caine appears to be having a blast as Jasper, and lends the film considerable warmth and poignance. And Claire-Hope Ashitey is funny and sweet as a refreshingly unsentimental savior (her one-line dismissal of any Christ allegory is perfect). Ashitey is also the subject of the film's most indelible image - standing nude and swollen with child in a barn, surrounded by cows, Ashitey becomes a painterly summation of the conflict that drives Children of Men - between the animal and the divine, the profane and the sacred, chaos and symmetry.
It's true that Children of Men is incredibly prescient, but if the film will live beyond its topical relevance (and I believe it will), it's because it is more fundamentally about our constant fear of the future (irrespective of what war we're currently fighting). The violence in Children of Men is as jarring as that in Psycho - it forces us to confront the overwhelming weight of our own anxiety about what comes next. But the film also offers a great deal of real hope, arriving at a moment of grace that serves to remind us of the faith we place in our children to make the most of this broken world they've inherited. Children of Men has a vital, pulsing spirit, infused with an eclectic mix of ideas, a concordance's worth of references to art both high and low (love the flying pig), and the subtle, witty suggestion that a world repopulated by the children of women might not be a bad idea. The subject matter of Children of Men may be bleak, but it is nevertheless the most joyous cinematic experience I've had in a long time.