Children of Men

| December 10, 2006

The future shock of director Cuaron’s sci-fi film (set in Britain) is not in the traditional vision of bold technological advance and evolutionary breakthrough; rather, it’s in presenting visually the bleak, blighted consequence if current modes of thought and sensitivities surrounding ethnic tensions, and the self-righteous, arrogant policies of a governing body that has steadily eroded civil liberties to the degree that it more readily resembles a fascist mob hold in place, and indeed advance. It’s a very recognizable England, only wearier, more haggard looking, with established ghettos and holding cells for undesirables- ethnic, racial and sexual. From global televised images that play out on screen, I assume the world has collapsed into chaos and disaster, England being the final holdout against absolute apocalypse. Conceptually, from these briskly observant opening images, Cuaron sketches a frighteningly realistic speculation of where we are headed as a species if the world’s presiding governments persist in their actions unimpeded and unquestioned.
The greatest tragedy for this new civilization is that due to some unexplained event women are no longer fertile, so the world is left to mourn and memorialize the youngest members of its population as it would when a child dies before its time. Crowds gather around television screens in the first scene as the news reports the passing of the youngest member of society, an 18-year-old man. It’s been nearly two decades since the last birth, and with this phenomenon has passed the need for faith or belief-it’s difficult to hold out hope for any society which has lost the ability to procreate itself. Such concepts are obsolete when regeneration ceases.
Among the audience watching the news segment at a café is Theo (Clive Owen, moping and brooding as charismatically as ever), a former activist now compromised by past loss and grief, keeping as low a profile as possible, careful not to catch the attention of the bully police force or the political terrorists. Owen plays him as a shell of a man, hunched over, recessive in posture and bearing. Contacted by former allies (the head of whom is a cool and controlled Julianne Moore), he is enlisted to deliver a potentially revolutionary figure to safety across some very dangerous ground. Reticent at first, his instincts kick in when the enormity of his task reignites his passion and sense of responsibility. His charge is a polarizing individual, an easy pawn for both revolutionaries and authorities to exploit for their own respective agendas. Theo is the ideal protector of the youngster as he belongs to no party. Michael Caine is on board as a hippyish free spirit colleague of Theo’s , whose woodland retreat serves as sanctuary and think tank (Caine brings a warm and melancholy humanity to the part, a man struggling to keep linked to the finer aspects of life in a society which no longer recognizes them).
I’m not qualified to comment on the P.D. James novel from which this film is adapted, but I can lament that the film is much more visually developed than narratively. The story feels extremely truncated; the abrupt, disorienting conclusion especially feels robbed of poetic potential- it’s too swift and graceless, badly timed somehow. At only 91 minutes, the film feels too short to bear the philosophical and psychological implications of its concerns. As story, it’s really just one long chase scene-albeit, a fairly involving and suspenseful one, but it’s left to the visuals to give dimension to the narrative. Cuaron’s visuals have an uncommon, palpable emotional and physical thrust-they communicate and register every feeling and smell and pulse on screen, so that even when the plot goes slack I still can sense that I’m immersed in a full experience.
That said, from a purely cinematic perspective, the film contains two sequences which shall stand as two of the best film moments from this year. One is a startling and heartbreaking ambush on a roadway involving our intrepid group of freedom fighters as they attempt retreat from the assault of a state police force- it’s a marvel of spatial suspense and unexpected consequences. The other is a sudden rapt, awestruck reversal from great and thunderous violence to absolute stillness and reverence as a miracle presents itself to warring parties. The silence is so loaded as to be deafening. Again, it’s mastery of movement in the frame, and the emotional power of placement. For all the slights of the narrative, the film remains firmly resonant- it’s Cuaron’s elegant and sound gifts for the vocabulary of film that leave me with hauntingly substantial and lingering images.

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