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children of Men artwork by Mister G

Children of Men

children of Men artwork by Mister G

Director: Alfonso Cuarón / Screenplay: A. Cuarón / Timothy Sexton / David Arata / Mark Fergus / Hawk Ostby (from novel by P.D. James/ Editing: A. Cuarón & Alex Rodriguez / DP: Emmanuel Lubezki / Music: John Taverner

Cast: Clive Owen / Michael Caine / Chiwetel Ejiofor / Julianne Moore / Charlie Hunnam / Danny Huston / Pam Ferris / Clare-Hope Ashitey / Jacek Koman / Peter Mullan / Oana Pellea   

Year: 2006

 

In With a Bang, Out With a Whimper

 


B
limey. O. Riley.

Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón’s commercially under-achieving, critically-beloved masterpiece from 2006, has left me reeling all over again

Arrow Academy have re-released Cuarón’s bleak vision on Blu-Ray, believing the time is right, to reappraise a film that speaks to our shared experience of life today, in 2018, with a more urgent relevance than we could muster back in ‘06. 

If we weren’t ready for the film back then, we’re more than ready for it now

GlassesEstablished crime novelist P. D. James wrote her original tale – The Children of Men – back in 1992; the only non-crime work she published, in a career spanning seventeen novels. Back in the early Nineties, the outlook for writers of speculative fiction was in-flux, thanks to the end of the Cold War; it was a time for new pre-occupations to replace the spectre of World War Three 

Around that time, there arose a new awareness of Mankind’s impact on the natural environment, with a renewed focus on ‘Climate Change’ and how, over time, this had the potential to cause catastrophic effects on the built as well as the natural landscape. Couple this with a few ‘unknown’ factors and soon enough, James had the idea for a dystopic novel, for which the main cause would be an inexplicable collapse in human fertility (a theme similar to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). The novel (which I’ve read, though remember only dimly), had a fusty, genteel quality to the future Britain she envisaged. Its characters were contributing to an ‘orderly’ shutdown of the country’s towns & basic utilities; there being no-one to use them, their very decommissioning gave meaningful employment to that dwindling pool of citizenry.

Wisely, however, its screen adaptation would treat James’ text as a mere jumping-off point; taking a new course that would allow director Cuarón and DP Emmanuel Lubezki to explore visceral action in ways not seen – or possible – before.

GlassesCuarón’s an interesting director to me, being an example of that rare breed who makes few features, yet who wins passionate dedication from his actors. He made his Directorial debut in 1995, with a well-received adaptation of the children’s classic A Little Princess. That was followed by a disappointing take on Dickens’ Great Expectations (1998), but it was his third feature – Y Tu Mamá Tambien (2001) that put him on the map as a director of note. A provocative road-movie set in his native Mexico, its lauded international reception landed him a prime gig directing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004); the third film in the series and fan-favourite. Then came Children of Men; by this point, James’ definite article had been dropped; a move that put clear-water between the film and its source.

Having acquired the rights to the book, Universal appointed a trio of writers to come up with a workable draft. Their efforts were enough to interest Cuarón in the project, back in 2001, but production would be delayed to allow him to finish ‘Potter. The delay was enough for Cuarón and another writer, Timothy Sexton, to refine the screenplay; their combined efforts convinced Clive Owen to sign-on as lead, Theo Faron.

An actor I’ve seen precious little of in recent years, Owen was a rising star back in the early Noughties, following his breakout role in Croupier (1998). Supporting roles in Altman’s Gosford Park & The Bourne Identity (both 2002) lifted Owen’s profile beyond a theatrically-focused domestic audience. As far as Hollywood was concerned, Owen arrived fully-formed in Croupier, as if from nowhere, carrying himself with a self-confident swagger that reminded the writer David Thompson ‘of a young Stanley Baker’. High praise, indeed.

After a prominent role in Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Closer (2004), Owen had to weather intense – though inevitable – speculation over his possible future as James Bond; choosing to put such speculation behind him with a startling take on Theo; a workaday hero now given a lot more to do, by Cuarón & Sexton. Looking back over what subsequently turned out to be a patchy film career, I think ‘Children catches Owen at his best, with a committed, schlubby performance, that invokes James’ original idea of Theo as Everyman.

GlassesThings begin at a measured clip, with Theo in a busy London café, grabbing a coffee-to-go, whilst everyone else is transfixed by sad news on the TV: ‘Baby’ Diego Ricardo – the World’s youngest person – has been murdered back home in Brazil. As we digest this news (its impact helped by the forlorn reactions of customers), Theo’s back on the busy street outside, adding a generous measure of Scotch to his morning heart-starter: amidst the chaos of smoky motorised rickshaws and grimy red buses, no-one cares. The caption might read ‘November’, but Cuarón’s palette here, is so desaturated & drab, that even titling the month ‘July’ might’ve been plausible. 

And then a bomb explodes

The 2005 London Bombings were still fresh in the memory, having occurred just weeks before the film-shoot and both Cuarón and DP Lubezki were keen to capture a little of the sheer randomness of it all, as Theo looks-on, unfazed at the sight of a disoriented woman holding her severed arm. Already, we see him as someone self-medicating their existing pain & misery with drink; it’s his cushion against a world-turned-jagged. He can’t won’t help; instead, he carries on to the office: a joyless, featureless void filled with cubicles, in which mute colleagues watch the same TV news on their computers. Unwilling to wallow among them, Theo leaves. 

He takes a train out of the city; its windows reinforced against rocks being thrown by illegal refugees (‘Fugees’). He alights at a station guarded by fascistic-looking armed police, while a Babelesque cacophony of languages can be heard from people penned-in cages like cattle; one of several images Cuarón uses to evoke earlier horrors… 

The TVs in the train were shown replaying a patriotic message ending with the slogan: ‘The World Has Collapsed. Only Britain Soldiers On’. What at the time, must’ve seemed a piece of stirring prose, in the spirit of the ironic-retro ‘Keep Calm…’ message used by marketeers in the years since, now sounds like post-Brexit jingoism.

Be careful what you wish for, I’d say…

GlassesHe’s met at the station by Jasper (Michael Caine), an old friend of Theo’s. By his own admission, Caine plays Jasper ‘like a Seventy year-old John Lennon’ and clearly revels in an all-too brief part that features air-guitar and fart-gags… Jasper lives in-seclusion, along with his wife, who’s now in a catatonic state. Now that Jasper’s regular job as a political cartoonist has ceased, he survives by growing – and selling – strawberry-scented weed and maintaining a low-profile in a striking, airy house, screened from the remnants of civilisation, by a thicket of trees and a concealed driveway. Somehow, Jasper has never lost his sense of fun at the absurdities of life and, in his devotions to his wife, is a living example to Theo of how people used to live with respect – and love – for each other. That makes Jasper a living fossil; a relic from better times gone-by. The world might be falling apart, but in the grace and humility with which he conducts himself, Jasper embodies a trace of James’ original novel. Also worthy of mention, is the elegant economy with which Cuarón uses a simple camera-pan across Jasper’s photos & mementoes, to fill-in his backstory. Nothing is ever said about this because, if you’ve been paying attention, all you need to know is here…

Once back in London, Theo’s making his way back to work, when he’s abducted off the street and bundled into a van, only to find – when his hood’s removed – that he’s in some sort of spacious greenhouse, the windows of which, have been entirely plastered with sheets of yellowing newsprint. Again, if you’ve been alert, there are clues in the headlines, as to what’s happened and how we got here.

In this case, ‘Here’ finds Theo surrounded by a trio of masked, armed thugs in the company of Julian (an odd, affecting role for Julianne Moore). She was once had a child with Theo, that then died (glance at the film’s mise en scéne and it’s inferred that their loss was just one among millions). Whereas Theo buried his grief with drink, Julian now runs a terrorist organisation called ‘The Fishers’; their immediate aim being to leverage Theo’s privileged position to secure transit papers for ‘someone special’. Unsurprisingly, Theo’s a little fazed by all this (if his proximity to a detonating bomb didn’t move him, this won’t either), so Julian leads him outside, into an amazing space resembling the inside of an airship-hangar (though actually part of the Royal Dockyards at Chatham: n.b. Must visit). 

She offers him money, once it’s clear any sense of altruism hasn’t survived the intervening years since their separation…

It does the trick, as when we next see Theo, he’s in an incongruous Rolls-Royce, gazing out of its sound-proofed hush at the chaos beyond. After passing through a cordon at Marble Arch, they waft up The Mall and into an elevated world where the privileged few are out walking their pet Zebras in unaccustomed sunshine. There’s a near-constant presence of animals throughout the film, beyond mere Cats & Dogs. It’s as if Cuarón surrounds his characters with animals as a substitute for human children. They provide that vital emotional bond, whilst reminding them – and us – that their generational succession will continue long after Mankind has disappeared in a hundred years or so. So why NOT enjoy walking a pet Zebra? Following the end of the Holocene, Earth’s natural order will thus be restored over the ensuing millennia and such whims will be immaterial…

GlassesAt this point, Cuarón lets some of John Taverner’s commissioned score seep onto the soundtrack, whereupon we hear an angelically-voiced soloist, conjure images from a mythical ‘Paradise Lost’; it’s a motif that drifts in-and-out of the film when Cuarón wishes to suggest a ‘Grace-note’ and remains a highlight from a layered, multi-sensual soundtrack. 

Again, Theo’s seeing it all with a glazed look of bemused detachment. He’s as unfazed by such fin-de-siécle decadence in defiance of widespread misery elsewhere, as he is comforted by the thought that, whenever possible, the Elite will always seek to insulate themselves: up to the point when it becomes futile; perhaps that’s why we see them walking Zebras as opposed to Labradors

This notion of ‘legacy’ – of having no-one to bequeath anything to – is perpetuated when the ‘Roller crosses over a bridge to Battersea Power Station; the iconic twin to Bankside, better known today as ‘Tate Modern’. Like its real-world equivalent, Battersea functions here as the ‘Ark of the Arts’: a heavily guarded repository of classic works, i.e. Michelangelo’s David, all presided over by Nigel (Danny Huston) as a bland aesthete channeling the spirit of Charles Saatchi. In the company of a ‘special friend’ and muted servants, Nigel occupies an airless eerie at the top of the building, from where he can survey the filth below. An old friend, Theo needs him to produce the paperwork, thus proving it really isn’t about ‘what you know’… 

With its look of fastidious sterility and an obviously ‘camp’ aesthetic, Nigel’s place reminds me of Tyrell’s penthouse in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Other touches? How about a glimpse of a tethered, inflatable pig, honouring Pink Floyd’s LP Animals? 

GlassesWe’re just shy of thirty-minutes in and so far, Cuarón’s been giving us a peerless example of character revelation, in which layers of interpretation have been peeling-away like onion-skin. These characters are naturalistic. Their actors, have internalised their behaviours, to the point where we’re empathising with them and their situations. Even if they’re drawn, like Nigel, atop uncertain foundations, this viewer at least, is prepared to go with them. The writing and the actors have already done enough to earn my sustained attention. Indeed, the quality of the material here is so strong, even for its time, that it doesn’t feel to me like I’m watching a product from a mainstream studio circa 2006. This has more of an indie feel. I get the impression, that the script was honed until it gleamed and that Cuarón got to shoot the film he wanted despite being under the auspices of a mainstream studio…

A reunion with Julian, in a car driven by Luke (a great turn from Chiwetel Ejiofor), also introduces a New-Age ‘Earth-Mother’ type – Miriam (a downbeat Pam Ferris) and a diffident young black girl – Kee (a sparky Clare-Hope Ashitey). Kee’s the person in-need of the travel papers that Nigel coughed-up, but there’s a snag: they’re for a couple. Theo has to go with her

Luke’s taking them to a safe-house, when the car’s ambushed. Over an unbroken take lasting a solid three or four minutes, Cuarón keeps the camera inside the car, yet has it spin around a full 360º to show the action, as Luke reverses to safety and Theo deals with the unfortunate Julian, who’s taken one for the team. This is breathless stuff, achieved by mounting an elaborate rig on the car’s roof, that allowed the ‘real’ driver to sit up there and steer ‘backwards’ as well as DP Lubezki, who’s camera was mounted in the car’s ceiling and which he operated remotely. In addition, actors were sat in special seats that could swing in-and-out of the moving car to give the camera space to move. Watching it for the first time, your mind plays a trick. You watch it all unfold in real-time and marvel at the choreography of the scene. It’s only when you stop to think about how the camera was able to capture all you’ve just seen, that the mind-boggling kicks-in…

GlassesAnyhow, they get to the safe-house and while a meeting convenes to choose Julian’s replacement as leader, Kee reveals her secret to Theo: she’s heavily PREGNANT: the first pregnancy anyone’s seen in eighteen years… As Theo himself remarks: ‘Jesus Christ’.

In the middle of the night, Theo sees the ambush party arrive at the house and overhears them conspire with Luke. He realises that it’s all been a put-up job: that Julian was the victim of a targeted assassination, rather than a stray bullet and that the plotters intend, not only to kill him the next day, but to use Kee’s baby as a bargaining chip against the Government, as part of an ‘uprising’ they intend to provoke in Bexhill: the site of the largest internment camp for Fugees. Trouble is, in order for Kee to fulfil Julian’s original intention and reach The Human Project (a quasi-mythical offshore research project ‘in the Azores’, rumoured to be researching the fertility problem), she needs to rendezvous with a visiting boat…

At a marker-buoy out at-sea…

That requires Theo to get her into the camp…

And, amidst the slow-apocalypse, somehow find a boat…

That’s as much as I’m prepared to say here, with one exception. Cuarón outdoes himself later-on, with another extended take, as Theo navigates a battlefield. At a little over six minutes long, it’s a remarkable piece of ‘pure cinema’: that is, a sequence for which dialogue is not only superfluous, but almost absent. CGI trickery might’ve layered-in numerous shots for all I know but, as-presented, it represents a triumph of choreography that had me gasping, then chuckling at its audacity. From the sound design, to random particulates hitting the camera lens, we’re given a voyeuristic roller-coaster ride as Lubezki’s camera sits on Theo’s shoulder. The thrilling result, takes elements from ‘First-Person Shooter’ videogames such as the Call of Duty franchise and blends them with a a loose suggestion of ‘reportage’, as if we’re watching footage from a war-zone. Remarkable work.

GlassesProblems? Not a lot for this reviewer, though I would’ve liked more exploration of Theo’s past with Julian in their dialogue, as a way of humanising him and of rounding-out his motivations. Unless I missed it, I also felt more could’ve been made of the motivations for Luke’s planned uprising. Its purpose was never fully realised in my mind; whilst not central to the plot, a few seconds spent there, as well as outlining the McGuffin-like ‘Human Project’, would’ve gone a long way. Come to think of it, perhaps the biggest McGuffin in the entire picture is Kee, which explains why we spend little time in her company: perhaps showing a little more of her interaction with Theo, might’ve lifted a slightly draggy Second Act… 

Finally, I think a trick was missed in not being more explicit over the reason for the presence of the Fugees in Bexhill. Rather than act as a ‘transit camp’ from which people are deported, it was shown as more of a ‘Warsaw Ghetto’ from which no-one leaves. I alluded to Cuarón’s imagery suggesting older horrors – and his vision of Bexhill was likely one of them – but again, I don’t think we’re given sufficient information as to how – and why – it exists. Nit-picking, is all.        

Without revealing any spoilers, let’s explore a few themes & ideas suggested by the picture. The first (and most obvious to me), being the script’s religious overtones. James herself, was a committed Anglican and I think her Christianity surfaces often here. Beyond the Biblical names (Luke, Miriam, Tomasz ‘Thomas’) there’s the very name of the terrorist group (‘The Fishers’), that one might see as akin to early Christians, working against an authoritarian state to bring forth the hoped-for ‘sacred’ child. 

The film’s central conceit – Kee’s unexpected pregnancy – also carries theocratic weight. For a start, she’s unsure of the father; even joking to Theo at one point, that she remained a virgin. Second, she’s an illegal refugee – a Fugee – in a land where she doesn’t belong or is welcomed. Third, her very name – Kee – can be read as ‘Key’. Therefore, she can be seen as breaking the ‘deadlock’ between UK nationals and the Fugees and, in so-doing, give hope to the World.

GlassesTalking of names, let’s consider that of ‘Julian’. A strange choice for a female character, a little digging revealed a possible source of inspiration. It turns out, that the Roman Emperor Julian was the last Pagan to hold the position, and that history now thinks of him as someone blind to the underlying currents then-prevalent in contemporary Rome. In-reality, Julian forbade early Christians from teaching & learning their Gospels and actively promoted Paganism in its place believing that, for a faltering Rome to prosper once more, the state had to recommit to its core beliefs. This stance caused him to be known as ‘Julian the Apostate’ by the coming church (with ‘Apostasy’ defined as the renunciation & criticism of a dominant / ascendant religion). The film’s Julian might be seen as someone who’s prepared to go against the views of her peers (i.e. use Kee’s baby to ignite a civil-war) in favour of its discreet evacuation to a safe location. Her course of action might be vainglorious, but in Theo, she has someone from outside whom she can trust: and it’s little surprise that the others want him dead.

Next, Cuarón (and James’) dystopia is a vision very different from others offered by Orwell in his 1984, or Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), in that its premise – a lack of newborn children – creates its own, unique internal tensions that inform character choices. Children of Men offers a world-view without hope or the absence of something to live for: and how could there be, when there are no children – no successive generations – to receive our bequests and honour our memories? In-turn, it raises interesting questions about The Meaning of Life. Why, for example, is the UK Government so keen on denying entry to its Fugees when, in a few, short decades, there’ll be no-one around to care? Is it a last-gasp of an island nation determined to while-away its final years in shabby, genteel isolation? Quite possibly, if the glimpse of twee band-stands and parading strollers in The Mall are any guide.

Back in 2006, I can see this might’ve resonated a little, but today? In a world where the country voted for Brexit? Where dominant countries such as the USA, are unilaterally withdrawing from free-trade agreements & the Paris Climate Change Treaty? Is nothing safe any more? Increasingly, I find myself asking: Where are the Grown-Ups?

GlassesIf Cuarón’s film achieved anything, it was to remind me that we live in a world where the underlying natural state might just be Chaos and that, for most of the time at least, it’s kept in-check. Trouble is, it wouldn’t take much to unleash it: and that’s what I take from the film. Cuarón’s vision was spot-on: it just arrived a decade too-soon.

Last, I want to mention the film’s design, set as it is within a recognisable (near) future. It’s one without flying cars or robots and not just because, back in ‘06, their inclusion would likely have broken Cuarón’s golden rule of not using a ‘Green-Screen’ allowing ‘easy’ insertion of F/X shots; wherever possible, he & Lubezki aimed to capture as much as possible in-camera. Besides, such advances would’ve made the world feel too ‘successful’, in solving its problems! Instead, the grimy look & feel evokes a mood that, even had engineers been close to perfecting such technologies, the pervasive hopelessness has rendered such advances moot. Why engineer low-emission vehicles, when there’ll be no-one around to benefit? Why engineer robots to take over the world in our place, when Nature can do it all anyway – and without any effort on our part? Not having them around in Cuarón’s vision, leaves his world more believable: more relatable. Cuarón achieves more with less. What technology we glimpse – flat screen TVs, animated billboards and the like – was all on the cusp of mainstream adoption during filming, so the audience was being asked only to embrace incremental advances.

GlassesThe film was nominated for a trio of Oscars (Best Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography & Editing) but left empty-handed: a symbolic denial for a film that few in the mainstream were ready for. Not even Universal – its studio – knew how to market such a bleak film; one in which its leading-lady dies half-an-hour in…

As a result, the film barely scraped into-profit; even now, I think it’s still in the red. A dispirited Cuarón would retreat, embittered by the bruising experience, only to return several years later with the technically-impressive-yet-shallow Gravity (2014) which not only made pots of money, but won him the gong, though I like to think it was the Academy’s way of righting past-wrongs. At the time of writing, his latest picture – Roma (2018) – is also generating award-buzz, though a B&W, subtitled movie set in 1970s Mexico will likely be a hard sell to the heartlands

If it all seems bleak, then, remember Kee and her baby. Remember, that there has to be corruption in order to bring forth sweetness. That hope, no matter how insignificant or inconsequential it might seem in the moment, is all that stands between light and shadow. 

Wait. 

Light AND Shadow: isn’t that cinema?

The World Has Collapsed. Only Britain Soldiers On.

Children of Men  Triple Word / Score: VISIONARY / KINETIC / ESSENTIAL / NINE

1 Comment
  • Mark S
    Reply January 23, 2019 at 12:42

    An absolutely great, bleak, dystopian future is presented here – one, or something very similar, that may well be entirely possible. I think you’ve captured everything here in yet another great review. I don’t know if this is a spoiler, but the scene in which Kee carries her baby, crying, through a battlefield and all the guns fall silent – well, pretty mesmerising and powerful. This review has reminded me to dig this one out again !

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