Wednesday, December 27, 2006

very odd, what happens in a world without children's voices: notes on Children of Men

[Cross-posted on the Passion For Cinema blog]

Alfonso Cuarón achieves a rare and deeply satisfying balance between form and content with Children of Men, a tale set in a dystopian future (2027, we are told) plagued by infertility and hurtling to doom as people and lands are devastated by war, civil and political breakdown and terrorism. We are in the London of the future. The urban landscape is bleak, polluted, filthy and shrouded by depression and gloom. Despite this being years into the future, the vehicles don't look futuristic at all, but merely aged versions of their current selves -- double-decker buses look just as dusty and mundane; only advertising seems to have made big strides: billboards and bus signs are now animated. One of the advertising spots running even informs us that The world has collapsed; only Britain strives on. A nationalist government is aided by a brutal police force and all foreigners are regarded as illegal immigrants and refugees are subjected to shame and torture in camps across the country. The government also disburses anti-depressants, perhaps in response to the widespread apathy and depression; yet, ganja is still illegal. Somehow media spectacle doesn't seem to have ceased: in the opening moments of the film we see people reacting to the death of Diego Ricardo, the youngest person on the planet, who was 18 years, 4 months, 20 days, 16 hours, and 8 minutes old.

All this is part of the texture of the film itself as is the soundtrack that features Deep Purple, King Crimson, Radiohead and John Lennon as well as an evocative use of Franco Battiato's cover of Ruby Tuesday. The content and narrative derive a lot from the P. D. James novel the film is based on, but there are significant differences that necessitate the evaluation of the film on its own terms. Emmanuel Lubezki's camerawork merits recognition and accolades of all kinds for the consistent palette of greys that make London look just as war-beleaguered as it did during the second World War. The Orwellian echoes from 1984 resonate in the trash-laden streets and dark alleys, the woods and fields on the outskirts of the city, the grime and grief of the internment camps for the refugees, and the police officers patrolling the roads with dogs.

Set design plays a crucial role in the film, because a lot of exposition comes not from dialogue, but from the spaces that we see our characters in: the salvaged art represented by Michaelangelo's David (that's missing a leg) and Picasso's Guernica (not to mention the flying pig that shows up, perhaps as a nod to Pink Floyd's Animals), the television ad for a suicide drug called Quietus, the graffiti on the walls.

The cinematographic choices are what seal the deal as far as balancing form and content is concerned. Cuarón eschews quick cuts and dramatic close-ups of any kind, preferring instead to use a lot of extended shots with handheld cameras, thus giving scenes a sense of verisimilitude, honesty and earnestness. Consequently, the film boasts two spectacular sequences. The first one is a 12-minute uninterrupted sequence of dialogue and action filmed from within a car carrying passengers. This employed a modified vehicle as well as a special camera rig and the results are simply astounding. The second sequence, a more explicit example of the cinéma vérité sensibility that Cuarón's approach lends the film, has us following characters through the streets, ducking under and into buildings and eventually making their way into a building, and then back out, all amidst continuous gunfire and explosions. In a spectacularly real stroke of luck, the camera lens is spattered with some (fake) blood and dirt at one point, thus shattering the fourth wall; the spatters vanish subsequently during a transition across a dark space, thus conveying the possibility that a silent cut happened. Not since the continuous opening shot from Orson Welles in Touch Of Evil has the extended take augmented the emotional core of the narrative so much, Scorsese's memorable excursion in Goodfellas notwithstanding.

The performances are all first rate; all the actors seem to have been picked for their ability to inhabit characters instead of being recognisable faces and personalities on screen: from Clive Owen's warm wry Theo Faron, whom both humans and animals seem to trust, to Michael Caine's hippie and former political cartoonist Jasper, to Julianne Moore as Theo's ex-wife Julian Taylor, who is now an underground revolutionary, to Danny Huston as Theo's cousin Nigel, to Claire-Hope Ashitey as Kee, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Luke, Pam Ferris as Miriam, Peter Mullan as Syd, and Oana Pellea as Marichka.

There is a reluctance to reveal more about the elements of the narrative and the plot. I went in to watch the film with just the premise of it being a tale of fading hope in a dystopian future. The rewards of not being forewarned about the details were immense. To find a film that's both intellectually and emotionally rewarding, a film that is compelling both in its content and the stimulating technique employed to present it is rare enough to want to go in blind. I was glad I stayed away from plot synopses (although I wish I had been prepared for the technical wizardry I was about to be treated to). Without revealing too much, I'd have to say that it also became the perfect Christmas Day movie for me.

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