I’m not sure what it says about this critic, but Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, a gloomy look at a dystopian future, is one the most exciting films I have seen in some time.
Children is loosely based (by no fewer than five scribes: Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby) on the P.D. James novel set in a 2027 London beset by illness, environmental ruin and infertility. (Yes, it sounds like a downer, but trust me — it picks up.) Clive Owen is perfectly cast as Theo, an erstwhile political activist who has turned silent when he is approached by his former lover, Julian (Julianne Moore). Julian is an underground agent, working to aid immigrants escape the myriad prison camps set up by the totalitarian state. Julian enlists Theo’s assistance to transport Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) across the country. Kee, you see, is carrying a very big secret. One that may significantly alter the human race.
Though there are echoes of Blade Runner, Brazil and The Road Warrior, Cuarón’s keen eye makes this a revisionist tale in every sense. Theo is as much of an anti-hero as can be (he wears sandals for half of the picture!) and no character, whether it be Julian or Jasper, Theo’s drugged-out friend (played marvelously by Michael Caine, who I presumed laughed all the way to the bank on this one) or Nigel (Danny Huston), Theo’s powerful cousin, fits in the story exactly as one might presume they would. Owen is terrific. Theo never has much of a chance to question the circumstances with which he finds himself caught up, he must simply roll with the punches, and Owen’s droll demeanor has a way of cutting right through the most perilous of sequences.
Cuarón’s visual choices are most daring when it comes to the work of his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki. With them, what you do not see is as innovative from a cinematic standpoint as what you do. For example, there is not a single close-up in the movie. Instead, Lubezki balances out both character and setting in his shots. Other shots involve a great deal of sleight-of-hand, including one 12-minute scene involving a car ride that is easy enough to dismiss until one realizes that the entire scene appears to have been shot in a single take. A later scene that lasts almost as long in one of the refugee camps also looks as though it only took one take to shoot. Though they never call attention to themselves, these are achievements worth mentioning, and I imagine that they involved a good deal of improvisation on the part of Owen and the rest of the cast.
Dismal and futile as it is, Children is one great big booster shot to cinematic ennui.