Monday, October 09, 2006

Children of Men, a grimly beautiful cinematic feast (spoilers) REVIEW


I finally caught up with Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men this weekend, a film based on the dark and chilling PD James novel. In short, the plot focuses on a tragically apocalyptic world set in 2027, a world dogged by a fertility crisis which has meant there has not been a new baby born at all, in over eighteen years. Wars have ravaged the planet, the environment is in a funk from decades of prolonged pollution and mankind is in freefall, offered suicide packs by the government which promise a quiet and painless demise. A totalitarian British government herds all foreigners ('fugees) into concentration camps and multiple terrorist groups seemingly stage bombings for fun. And yet, miraculously, amidst this angst and mayhem, a young woman, Kee, has fallen pregnant and seeks safety with the much-fabled 'Human Project' - a quasi-mythical settlement on the Azores, far away from the grime and misery of mainland Britain. The story charts Kee's desperate attempt to escape to a new life, accompanied by her protector Theo, one of fiction's unsuspecting heroes - a man who suddenly finds himself at the crossroads of history and rises to the occasion.

I should say for starters that I am a huge fan of Cuaron's work. He directed, in my opinion, the best Harry Potter film so far - by a country mile I might add. His work on Great Expectations and A Little Princess was eye-catching. And Y Tu Mama Tambien was one of my favourite films of 2001. He does not disappoint with Children of Men. Cuaron has an astonishing feel for the cinematic medium. Every single frame is crammed with visual delights. More than most directors he succinctly moves and moulds narrative with cinematographic brilliance and has a talent for deploying colour, or lack of it, when necessary. He genuinely paints a story for us with a magically illustrative visual vocabulary.

Here we are presented with a dank, rain-strewn world; a bleak, grey landscape, scarred by numerous power-stations belching thick smoke. The city streets are dirty, clostraphobic and crowded and buildings are graffiti-ed and fallen into disrepair. After all, what is the point of rebuilding a world which no-one soon will be able to enjoy? The only 'renewed' spot is the slightly surreal Ministry of Art, housed in Battersea Power Station, its interiors a spartan, gleaming white adorned by world-famous works of art such as Picasso's Guernica (very fitting) and Michelangelo's David, which have been 'rescued'. Here Theo meets his cousin, a government minister who claims to cope by not thinking about anything - but sure enough, we spot a huge, dummy pig wafting past the window.

The single point of pleasant respite in the entire film is the home of Theo's long-time friend and mentor, Jasper. His hidden settlement in the forest is a warm, friendly place, full of comfy furnishings, plants, music and animals. Indeed, young animals pervade this film - kittens and puppies galore - a sharp reminder that it is only mankind who has failed, who has shown incapable of surviving.

In addition to his aesthetic talents, Cuaron is also good at eliciting strong acting performances and here he fares well too, although perhaps not quite so well as former films. Having said that, Michael Caine is simply fantastic as genial hippy Jasper - a real scene-stealer. As indeed is Peter Mullan, an unsung hero of British filmmaking, who takes on the minor rumbustious role of Sid, the corrupt border official. Claire Hope-Ashitey is fine as Kee, the first woman in eighteen years to give birth, (her name is a little too heavyhanded symbolically), and Pam Ferris as her anxious guardian Miriam is passable, but this is not her best work by any means. Julianne Moore is one of Hollywood's greatest actresses but is really rather ordinary here - although her early death is shocking and raw. Chiwetel Ejiofor is always good value but a little under-used here as the idealistic Luke.

Clive Owen puts in a brave performance as Theo, the sourfaced, cynical everyman, who takes it upon himself to escort poor Kee to the sanctity of a ship headed for The Human Project. To do so requires a perilous journey, avoiding terrorists who wish to exploit Kee's baby for their own propaganda purposes, avoiding murderous thug-like British police officers, representatives of the State who would also exploit Kee's baby for their own propaganda purposes, or so Theo and Kee are warned - although Theo is dubious.

Their journey takes them to 'Bexhill' - a town turned notorious refugee camp, enmired in filth and despair, where a minor civil uprising is being quashed most violently by the authorities. The epiphany of the piece is when Theo helps deliver Kee's baby girl in a squalid room in this camp. Obviously it is hard to ignore the 'messianic' theme in play here, and this is further emphasised later when Theo, Kee and child escape from a bombarded block of flats, where miserable refugees are cowering in fear from the bomb blasts and gunfire which continuously rock the building. Kee's baby starts crying, a thin, reedy but unmistakable cry amidst the thunderous furore of warfare raging around them. Suddenly everyone stops. Many fall to their knees in prayer. Many try to touch the baby and her mother. Even the armoured police and militia hold fire, if only for a few moments, to gaze in wonder at this newborn life - only to resume their bloodthirsty battle seconds later ...

Of course there are blood-sacrifices. We know they're coming. But that doesn't make them any less powerful. Jasper resigns himself to a cruel death at the hand of the terrorists who are dead set on securing Kee and her child for their own political purposes - but in doing so, Jasper enables Theo, Kee and Miriam temporary respite and an escape. There are other surprising acts of heroism on the way. Marichka, played by Oana Pellea, is at first sight, a repulsive, grasping woman in the refugee camp, who frightens Kee. But this woman does all she can to save the mother and her child, and is finally resigned we fear to a certain death in the refugee camp as Theo and Kee spot fighter planes raining bombs down on Bexhill in the closing sequences. And then, of course, there is Theo. You know it will happen. It's how these types of narratives always work; but you still wish it didn't have to end this way.

There is alot to love in this film - and a lot to worry over. Most affecting for me was the news that Theo and Julian had lost their young child in 2008 to a flu pandemic - a death that clearly haunted and destroyed their relationship - though probably not their love. There is a very moving moment when Jasper recounts the sorry story of their loss to Kee and Miriam - not knowing that Theo is in earshot. The camera slowly closes in on Theo's face which is stricken at the memory. Saving Kee and her child thus gives him a second chance to save a child when he could not save his own.

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