Children of Men is one of those rare films that manages to blend different genres to great effect. It is a seamless mix of thriller, drama and a sci-fi that packs a powerful emotional punch.
Based on the novel by P.D. James, the action is set in a dystopian vision of Britain circa 2027. No humans have been born for 18 years and the world has fallen into anarchy. As mankind faces up to the threat of extinction, a London bureaucrat and disillusioned ex-activist called Theo (Clive Owen) is contacted by his former wife (Julianne Moore) who is now an underground freedom fighter/terrorist. She introduces him to a woman named Kee who miraculously pregnant. A betrayal in her group leads Theo to flee with Kee and try to get her out of the country to The Human Project, a group of scientists dedicated to finding a cure for global infertility.
Unlike many films set in the future, Children of Men does not create a glossy world full of designer gadgets. Instead we have a dirty and disturbingly plausible look at a society broken down by violence, racism and the inability to reproduce. The script by Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata and Mark Fergus also has a refreshing lack of back story – certain plot elements are never fully explained allowing us to fill in the gaps of where society broke down. This will upset some who love plot and exposition but I found it refreshing change to have a film that gives you room to use your own imagination about why events have shaped it’s setting. There are some chilling references to contemporary issues such as immigration, terrorism and war (one sequence explicitly recalls the torture of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison) but there is never a trace of self importance or tedious moral lecturing.
Clive Owen impresses in the central role managing to convey a weary despair with a determined hope. Unlike some of his contemporaries there is clearly emotional substance behind his leading man exterior. But there are other performances here to enjoy. Michael Caine departs from his usual on screen persona as an ageing political activist to give a supporting turn of impressive sincerity, depth and humour. Moore doesn’t really get enough screen time but does well with what scenes she is given and actors like Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Huston and Peter Mullan are worth watching in supporting roles.
But the real star of Children of Men is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Fresh from his sterling work on Terence Malick’s The New World, here he does something many contemporaries have failed to do – he makes the UK seem fresh and visually alive. Despite the bleak subject matter, he makes familiar rural and urban landscapes come alive. The style is all rooted in the present but never resorts to lame clichés like red buses and lazy shots of a futuristic Big Ben (watch out for the inventive depiction of Admiralty Arch though). The use of handheld is highly effective (praise must also go to camera operator George Richmond) as it plugs us right into the journey of the characters and the nightmarish society they inhabit. Two sequences (one which forms the climax to the film) are so audacious and exhilarating that they put recent, and much more expensive, action films like MI:3 and Pirates 2 to shame.
Alfonso Cuaron has already proven himself as a versatile and accomplished director. A Little Princess, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban showed he could work successfully in different genres. But Children of Men is perhaps his most ambitious film yet, a film that mixes many different elements but still manages to feel coherent and fresh. It is striking snapshot at where Western society could be heading in the not too distant future but also a compelling tale of keeping up hope in the darkest hour. On a final note, I must confess that I wasn’t too impressed with the trailer to this film when I saw it a month ago. The use of a familiar Sigur Ros track (which has been used in endless BBC trails) and the bleak look of it didn’t excite me at all. How wrong I was. This is one of the best films of the year.
Children of Men is out now in the UK and is released in the US on December 25th in limited release
> Official Site
> IMDb entry for Children of Men
> Get UK showtimes for the film via Google
> Anne Thomspon links to some reviews at Risky Biz Blog
> Alfonso Cuarón discusses the film at the Time Out Movie Blog
> IMDb entry for Emmanuel Lubezki
> Quint at Aint it Cool reviews the film
> Variety’s review by Derek Elley from the Venice Film Festival