The 2006 film, The Children of Men by Alfonso Cuarón might just be one of the most underrated cinematic experiences I have ever had in the theater. I remember thinking to myself at the time, what the f&ck is this? I think this was probably just before I came to understand and really appreciate the idea that every movie has as much to do with what you bring to it as it does with what it brings to you.
I want to thank Rodney over at Fernby Films for sparking my revisit of this outstanding film. You can read his review here, which also contains my initial thoughts on his thoughts as well as the movie itself. There are a number of areas where this film excels and perhaps what is most important is how it stands up over time; there is a timeless quality to the story that might as easily be a direct commentary on current events or those of the past decade. The characters are nuanced, flawed; suggesting in no small way that where we are today will tag along into the future of tomorrow and impact not only the way in which society develops but how it equally unravels and ultimately comes undone. There is a centrist perspective of this story, one that imbues every scene and every decisive moment between people not all that dissimilar from the rebels, politicians, and middle men and women among us who are us or those closest to people we know.
Children of Men is purposefully dark, heavily graded with inky blues and saturated blacks that might easily represent aging bruises if anything. There is a cautionary tale woven into the very fabric where future failures are as much posted graffiti as obvious metaphors for social unrest and castrated call to arms. Imagery of illegal immigrants corralled in cages, banded together in fear of armed police, and rebels chased, shot, and condemned are every bit as real as we see similar themes played out in the headlines of popular media today. There is something appealing about speculative fiction, the foretelling of the future via a good long look out of windows with a view of the very nature of what is just around the next calendar page. Speaking of speculative fiction, I highly recommend the film ‘Dreams with Sharp Teeth’ – a feature-length documentary about Harlan Ellison; perhaps one of the best writers of speculative fiction still writing today, and just about anything else; a bit of an eccentric, a curmudgeon nestled in a fairy-tale like house crammed full of his work and the work of others tucked on a hill in Los Angeles. He is at once offensive but no less brilliant. All this is not to say I didn’t have problems with Children of Men.
There are some obvious mistakes in casting that must be pointed out. The casting of mostly unknowns as supporting characters isn’t always a recipe for disaster but in this case there is an argument to be made that the minor roles often negatively impacted the film. Furthermore, Juliane Moore simply did not succeed as the rebel ex-wife consumed by a noble cause but stiff, unbelievable and extreme performances keeps the audience at a distance and thus unable to connect with her. She is often prone to over-acting, as the distinction has been made by others, and it is evident here. She was, however, vastly improved in The Hours and Boogie Nights. I eventually got over my initial feeling that Clive Owen was stiff, detached, and often emotionless throughout. I appreciate that his character, still suffering the dramatic loss of his child and dissolution of his marriage, moved about the chaos of the story world in a kind of post traumatic stress disorder way but under-acting can be as destructive to a film as the opposite. I remember thinking during the first theater screening that he needed to bend more, show something gleaming through his armor as it were so us blokes in the audience could connect and relate with him to some degree. As it went, I came to accept his character but can’t help but imagine what another actor might have done in his stead. Think Adrian Brody in Polanski’s The Pianist? Remember the grit in his eyes, the volatility beneath the many layers of his character as he traversed broken earth or hid in crawlspaces afraid to even breathe? His performance, his emotions were palpable. I was in the dirt with him with tear-stained cheeks and that is exactly were Polanski put me and I loved him for it. Of course Michael Caine, bless him, delivered much-needed levity and smiles all around. He was Jasper, the eccentric rebel with so many causes as to spin even his own tightly disheveled world in permanent circles. I also think Danny Huston was interesting in a reserved, wish-he-had-a-bigger role way though you simply cannot beat his performance in The Proposition – the Australian Western by John Hillcoat (with a script by musician and frontman for the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave. Another film I can’t recommend enough. Huston’s singularly bad, uber-violent character was rich with nuance and depth the likes of which I haven’t seen before or since from him.
All in all, if you were mining this review for a summary of the film, a star rating or thumbs up or down, a meter-like snap view of the success or failure of Children of Men, I would be inclined to offer top notches on all such measuring sticks. This film will reach out to you and deliver stunning visuals and submerged messages, it will bombard you with intense scenes and believable emotional exchanges between characters who might not be so different from you or people in your life. The action sequences, the use of handheld cameras throughout and the technique of single, long takes are successful and memorable cinematic achievements. This is a film you must watch for all the reasons I’ve listed and even those reasons I found fault. Children of Men is an epic film and unlike the effects laden, concept driven Goliath spectacles so common in the past couple of years that left you wondering, why don’t they make films like that any more – this one satisfies on multiple fronts and delivers on subsequent screenings.