Children of Men

January, 2007, Drama

Directed by:Alfonso Cuarón

     The year’s off to a bang - - literally - - with this mesmerizing adaptation of P.D. James’ novel of the same name by Mexican writer/director Alfonso Cuaron, whose Y tu mama tambien (And Your Mother Too) became one of 2001’s most heralded foreign language films. Since then, Cuaron has directed one of the Henry Potter films and a segment of Paris, je t’aime, a poorly received romantic anthology. Neither of those efforts contained a hint of the impressive ability he demonstrates here to fashion a future in which the human race struggles with apocalyptic catastrophe brought on by its own egregious behavior. Armageddon has never been so presented with such frightening plausibility.

The year is 2027. Environmental collapse, religious conflict and warfare have conspired to produce world-wide infertility; no children have been born anywhere for over fifteen years, so the world faces a future without mankind. England battles unwanted immigrants with totalitarian ferocity, sparking violent reprisals from rebels seeking to overthrow the government. Officially sanctioned repression, ubiquitous propaganda and near total surveillance have reduced British life to a level of nightmarish subsistence. Theo Faron, (Clive Owen) once a passionately committed idealist now eking out an existence as a disillusioned bureaucrat, is contacted by his former wife Julian, (Julianne Moore) for assistance in transporting Kee, an illegal twenty-something Fijian from London to the coast, where she’ll be placed in the care of a nebulous group known only as The Human Project. But why is she worth the considerable risks involved?

For a fee, Theo agrees to obtain false papers for Kee, who’s accompanied on her flight to safety by Julian and Theo, Kee’s nurse and Luke, (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a rebel leader pursuing his own agenda. When a roadblock thwarts their escape route, Kee and her escorts experience betrayal, violent death and urban guerilla warfare as they seek to preserve an astounding treasure; the baby Kee carries in her swollen belly, destined to be taken by The Human Project to board a ship named Tomorrow. Is there hope for mankind after all?

Children  benefits enormously from the award-winning cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, (whose cameras created a lush vision of Eden-like paradise in The New World) Jim Clay and Geoffrey Kirkland’s production design and the special effects work of a quartet of technicians honored recently by BAFTA, The British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Under Cuaron’s direction, they bring to the screen a visual nightmare of trash-laden urban streets, desiccated livestock in funeral rural farmyards, surreal detention facilities, (ominously identified as “Homeland Security Centers”) and random bestial violence which erupts in such haphazard fashion it epitomizes the notion of chaos. Every facet of this movie - - sound effects, lighting, dialogue, sets, locations and costuming all conspire to engender intense feelings of isolation and paranoia, which fit Cuaron’s vision of a world gone complexly mad. The screenplay bursts with the unexpected, interspersing jolts of adrenaline-fueled action with unexpected horseplay, as if in these conditions, momentary distraction serves as a source of mental health. But the director’s most impressive skill lies in his chilling ability to extrapolate from current events, (the Abu Grab detention center in Baghdad, the border fence legislated by Congress late last year, roadside bombs, and paranoid television commercials masquerading as “public service announcements”) to this celluloid version of Dante’s ninth circle of hell, set in a future many in the audience can be actuarially expected to achieve. 

As Luke, the frighteningly earnest rebel, Ejiofor delivers yet another performance that underscores his remarkable range; (Dirty Pretty Things, Kinky Boots) with more than 15 roles in the past 4 years alone, he’s becoming increasingly hard to miss. Michael Caine sparkles as Jasper Palmer, Theo’s old friend and drug-addled accomplice, devoted to his catatonic wife and the sophomoric gag of demanding that his finger be pulled when he’s about to be flatulent. Even Danny Huston, (who must forever bear responsibility for turning 2004’s Silver City into the worst film of that year) is impressive in a small but pivotal role as a wealthy relative of Theo’s who insists on collecting the world’s finest art despite his belief there won’t be future generations around to appreciate it. 

But it’s Owen’s performance as the cynical yet hopeful hero that triumphs; with his sad-eyed expression and diffident attitude, Owen’s Theo is a grim update of Bogart’s reluctant hero in Casablanca. This forty-ish leading man adds Children’s best performance to the repertoire he so promisingly introduced with his first starring role nine years ago in Croupier. The two dozen-plus roles he’s played since then haven’t provided anything like the opportunity given here to convey his intriguing blend of intellect and sensitivity. The result is an often-wordlessly conveyed sense of optimism amidst despair which neatly encapsulates Children’s message. 

How do you categorize a film like this? Is it science fiction, a thriller, a melodrama or, as one British critic put it, “the thinking man’s action film”?

Whatever you call it, you have to see it.

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