Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Cuaron's Children of Men: A grimly beautiful cinematic feast (REVIEW)

I posted a longer version of this review on my Blog some time ago but with the film's recent launch into the US market I thought an 'edited' revision was timely ....

Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, based on the dark and chilling PD James novel, focuses on a tragically apocalyptic world set in 2027. This is 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. 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?

Cuaron has elicited strong acting performances from his cast here. Amongst the minor characters, 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.

However, most eye-catching (and heart-tugging too, if truth be told) is Clive Owen's searing, brave performance as the film's 'hero' Theo - a sourfaced, cynical everyman, who takes it upon himself to escort poor Kee to the sanctity of a ship headed for the much-fabled 'Human Project', a quasi-mythical settlement on the Azores, far away from the grime and misery of mainland Britain. To do so requires a perilous journey, avoiding trigger-happy terrorists and murderous thug-like British police officers. 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.

There is an unmistakeable, probably unavoidable messianic overtone to the piece at times, given the nature of the material. And of course there are blood-sacrifices. We know they're coming. But that doesn't make them any less powerful when they do.

There is alot to love in this film, including random but touching acts of human heroism ... and a lot to worry over. Most affecting, perhaps, 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.

This is one of the best films of 2006. It confirms, yet again, Cuaron as one of the supreme directing talents working today. I rather doubt Children of Men will garner much Oscars attention - it's a little too dystopic and bleak perhaps - but Cuaron deserves recognition.


Anonymous said...

Good film that co-opts Kubrick, 28 Days Later, Pink Floyd, and really dumbs-down the great original work by P.D. James. Film is unfortunately spoiled by an interminable and sappy ending. (A boat called "Tomorrow"... Please. Could Cuaron have been any more ham-fisted? Probably. But that doesn't excuse it.)

Gallivant said...

You might well be right about the ending ... yes, it is a little sappy ... but I always find any scene where we get to lose Clive Owen especially moving! I like the fact that the film has intertextual resonances - most postmodern films do of course. Yes, the PD James is dumbed-down to some extent, but frankly, this is often the case where text is translated to screen. The narrative is more often than not 'aesthetically mainstreamed' - made to fit certain Hollywood-ised aesthetic, narratological requirements. I find the choices, the modes of presentation, devised by adaptors, to be continually fascinating. In this instance I am an unabashed and fervent supporter of Cuaron's work - he is one of our finest directors with a real feel for the cinematic medium. I enjoyed his interpretation, and admired his cinematographic genius.