And yet, despite all the gloom, this is first and foremost a story of hope and shared humanity. Much of this burden rests on Clive Owen, who brings pathos to his role as the unlikely and unwilling hero. There’s nothing gung-ho about Theo, he simply does what he feels is right. When he loses his shoes late in the film he is forced to wear flip-flops, a detail that should be ridiculous but here becomes almost emblematic of a brand of everyday heroism.
It’s this kind of attention to detail that sets Cuarón apart from many other filmmakers. He will spend hours personally planning and rearranging a single scene or shot, and the results are unmistakable. By packing so much meaning into every frame, he gives the film a documentary style palpability. As he allows the camera to linger over the detritus of people’s lives, their photographs and mementoes, we come to feel that the characters in the film exist outside its frame.
Cuarón also goes to great lengths to make his audience part of the action. Much of the film is shot handheld, using as few cuts as possible and putting us right alongside the characters. The action sequences are particularly impressive, with extraordinarily long, roving takes that carry us into the thick of the chaos and out the other side. The climactic final scene, some 15 minutes long without any cuts, is a work of sheer genius.
Action oriented movies rarely allow for much significant acting, but Children of Men’s cast are of such high calibre that you can’t help but pay attention. Michael Caine is particularly good as Theo’s ageing hippy mentor Jasper. He is clearly enjoying every minute, bringing both humour and poignancy to the role. Julianne Moore is less convincing, but does some good work, as does rising star Chiwetel Ejiofor.
The film is not without its faults. Cuarón gets a little heavy handed with the thinly veiled political commentary, and some of the more frenetic scenes risk becoming parodies of despair. A few of the minor performances are badly overplayed (Charlie Hunnam is particularly hammy), and sometimes the film seems too gloomy for its own good. Many things are left unexplained, like why refugees would willingly seek out fascist England, only to be imprisoned in camps. Then again, the real world is rarely a very logical place.
Flawed or not, Children of Men is a not-to-be-missed treat. In amongst all the awfulness is a wonderful warm hope – a celebration of the human spirit that should prove irresistible to even the most cynical viewer. If for no other reason, you should watch it to see a filmmaker at the height of his powers. Is Cuarón the next Kubrick? Perhaps. But until he is anointed, we should just enjoy the ride.
- Alistair Fairweather
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