Children of Men is adapted from a dystopian 1992 P.D. James novel. I haven't read the book, but I have to imagine it's been rather freely adapted. Certainly this is a movie rooted in anxieties barely imaginable in the year the U.S. elected a man from Hope.
Set in England in 2027, Children of Men parcels out information about the planet's apocalyptic immediate past, glimpsed fleetingly via newspaper clippings and television and radio reports. ("It's day 1,000 of the siege of Seattle," a reporter blares in the background.) This world has been plagued by nuclear war, terrorist attack, immigration upheaval, environmental distress, flu pandemic, and citizens tortured at the hands of their democratic governments. But worst of all, mankind seems to have exhausted itself: Unexplained infertility is slowly killing off the population. ("Last one to die, turn off the lights," reads one sardonic bit of graffiti.)
As the film opens, a shell-shocked former activist named Theo (Clive Owen) stands with other patrons in a store watching a news report about the murder of "Baby Diego," the planet's youngest person at age 18, stabbed by a fan for refusing to sign an autograph. Theo walks out of the store into the perpetual gray of a decaying London street. An unbroken tracking shot follows him down the street as a bomb blast erupts in the storefront behind him. This is before the film's title is displayed, and already you know you're in for something special.
Children of Men is directed, with immense virtuosity, by Alfonso Cuaron, who has now firmly established himself as one of the planet's most exciting filmmakers. Cuaron's 2001 breakout, Y Tu Mama Tambien, is perhaps the decade's most ecstatic feat of pure filmmaking. And Cuaron had the audacity and imagination to follow it with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, bringing much-needed and so-far-unreplicated low-fi naturalism to the series.
Cuaron works similar magic here. This is not a film rooted in effects or post-production trickery. Instead, its artistry is in its photography and staging. It's a movie of long takes and outdoor locations and, in conjunction with ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (in addition to Y Tu Mama Tambien, his credits include such visual marvels as Terence Malick's The New World and Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow), Cuaron takes a familiar genre and imbues it with a modest, organic quality that feels unique.
Action sequences under Cuaron's command don't feature the rapid-fire editing, blurry close-ups, and deafening music that's become the norm. Instead he and Lubezki pull back to really let you see and feel what's happening. There's a thrilling, bloody countryside chase scene, where a car Theo inhabits is descended on by raiders on a motorcycle. Later, Theo has to usher a newborn through a crumbling urban combat zone.
But there are quiet moments too. One key supporting character's murder is depicted with meditative restraint. And there's a brief respite in a poignantly abandoned elementary school that is framed with poetic precision: Theo and a traveling companion have a conversation inside a classroom, while their human cargo, a teenage girl, sits outside on the swing set, visible through a jagged hole in the window.
This magnificent filmmaking takes a story that could have been maudlin and makes it rattlingly resonant. In this future that's not too far away, mankind has become infertile, and while you might assume an obvious scientific cause, it feels more mystical than that. Perhaps the world has become so rotten that babies refuse to enter it. But, as aggressively bleak as Children of Men is, it's ultimately a movie about hope. It's a nativity story of sort, complete with a manger. And from city to forest to war zone to a lone boat in the sea, it's a journey you won't want to miss.
Children of Men
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