Home at the End of the World
By Elbert Ventura
Children of Men
Dir. Alfonso Cuarón, U.S./U.K., Universal
Doomed to disappear before it even sees the light of day, Children of Men seems the exact opposite of what the public wants to see during the holidays. Never mind that Alfonso Cuarón’s searing tour de force is actually a nativity story infused with spiritual fervor (not to mention a riveting action flick with the best set pieces of the year). This orphaned movie emanates such unrelenting bleakness that only a Christmas miracle could rescue it from its ineluctable future as a cult item. And rescuing it deserves.
A chronicle of an extinction, Children of Men opens with a death. It is 2027, and Londoners stand glued to ubiquitous TV screens as a newsman announces the passing of “Baby Diego,” an 18-year-old Argentine who was the world’s youngest person. It is the latest blow to a crumbling civilization. Eighteen years earlier, humanity lost the ability to reproduce, the biggest among a string of cataclysms hinted at in headlines and conversations: ruinous wars, a flu pandemic, a mushroom cloud over New York. Never pausing to explain the biological catastrophe, the movie renders a wholly convincing representation of the West two decades hence. Gray, polluted, and grim, London is awash in the signs of technological advance and societal decay—fancy gadgets and hologram-cluttered cityscapes sit alongside bleak ghettos and internment camps for illegal immigrants. With a few deft strokes, the movie limns a world where the prospect of extermination has dictated a fascist course—and, more distressingly, one whose genesis can be traced back to our own calamitous times.
“Only Britain Soldiers On” blares a jingoistic PSA, a declaration that caps a montage of the world’s capitals falling apart under the strain of tribalism, inequality, and war. Sitting under the TV screen is Theo (Clive Owen), whose dead eyes give the lie to the nationalistic exhortation. But Theo’s wallow in existential catatonia won’t last. He is soon contacted by his ex-wife, Julian (Julianne Moore), now the leader of the Fishes, a radical group seeking to overthrow the government. A reluctant Theo is recruited to take part in a mission to help smuggle a woman out of England. It isn’t until the road trip is derailed by a roadside attack that Theo begins to understand the import of the mission: The refugee in transit, a young black woman named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), isn’t just any “fugee”—she’s pregnant. What had started out as a pro forma chase movie becomes something else altogether: a sanctified passage, replete with mismatched Joseph and Mary, gun-toting Herod’s men, and a hellhole Bethlehem.
With its Biblical intimations and political trenchancy, Children of Men achieves an allegorical grandeur that obliterates misgivings about narrative plausibility—you can imagine its epic journey as a pop origin myth repeated to future generations (should they come, that is). Its twists and turns a tad convenient, the movie’s symbolic narrative nonetheless gathers unstoppable velocity as Cuarón takes us on a tour of infernal England. Teaming with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeszki, whose work here can only be described as heroic, Cuarón has given careful thought to the cinematic expression of his ideas.
By now, the movie has acquired a reputation among detractors as a technical marvel—and nothing more. Children of Men really is a virtuoso work, containing some of the greatest camera pyrotechnics in any movie in years. One sequence, involving a roadside ambush and shooting, was shot in one take from the interior of a car, a set piece that tops Spielberg’s own swooping-camera magic act in War of the Worlds’ highway chase. That long take renders the claustrophobia of a siege; later ones are deployed to explore space. The climactic sequence plunges Theo and Kee right into a war zone—with us right alongside them. More than mere grandstanding, Children of Men’s aesthetic is at the service of an expressive purpose, not to mention a philosophy of cinema.
This is clarified in scenes when the long takes sit still. In one instance, Theo fixes himself a drink in the kitchen, a wry smile on his face, as his friend Jasper (Michael Caine) explains to Kee how Julian and Theo met—and how their son, Dylan, died. Theo remains in the foreground while Jasper and Kee are captured in the background; Theo’s face slowly grows darker, the people in the background remain out-of-focus, and the tableau communicates nothing less than the curse of the continuing past. Never cutting away, Cuarón explains a lifetime in one shot, evincing patience for the changes that cross the human face that few directors today have.
The movie’s virtues are tonal as well as technical. The imperfect script may fall prey to expository hand-holding, but its failings are rescued by its director and star. Humanizing an archetype—the hard-bitten cynic whose soul is eventually redeemed—Clive Owen gives the performance of his career, balancing pathos and humor with a deftness matched by Cuarón. A car chase that starts off with a barefooted Theo pushing the car mingles slapstick with suspense; a prosaic action-movie stunt becomes an unexpected gag when Theo ducks from gunfire behind a wall—only to be kicked out by the men already hiding behind it. Waking up in his nondescript apartment early in the movie, the high-def TV on his wall plays a soothing commercial…for a suicide pill. The commercial ends: “Quietus: You Decide When.” Now that’s (black) comedy.
It’s somehow telling that two of the best films of the year are defined by death and the long take. Both The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Children of Men capture man’s dilemma eloquently, pinning him to his environment without the respite of a cut. Tracking death—of one man in the former, of the human race in the latter—both movies express with unique power the inescapability of the physical world. This anxiety about the world we live in is further illuminated by a pairing with a natural partner: V for Vendetta. An incendiary piece of agit-pop, that film stages its call for revolution in a recognizable dystopia, much like Children of Men does. Ghosts from our pixilated nightmare populate both: detainees in black hoods, snarling dogs in prison camps, martyrs calling for revolution. V for Vendetta’s irresponsible politics finally complicate its critique. Children of Men, on the other hand, charts a path to the future that looks depressingly familiar. Cuarón makes us see how we can get there from here.
Tackling the xenophobic lurch of a frightened West, Cuarón gives his movie a charge of front-page relevance. The British government’s hard-line stance toward illegal immigrants in the movie is disturbing because the mood, if not necessarily the tactics, seems so familiar. But less noted in reviews so far is a more sneakily radical act: having a young, single, pregnant, black woman embody humanity’s salvation. Ten years after welfare reform passed, the single black mom remains an object of cultural derision, a pariah—that is, when she’s seen at all. Kee represents a furious reclamation of humanity for the invisible. As she trudges around a veritable Babel near the movie’s end, and the strangers around her see the gift that she carries, a current of common feeling passes through them all. Stripped down to their most miserable, they recognize the shared destiny that binds them together. That such a moment of recognition seems so remote today is as much proof as any that Cuarón’s dystopia may not be all that distant.