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Children of Men (2006) Print E-mail
Monday, 25 December 2006
“Children of Men” is a tough-minded science fiction adventure about despair and death that, nevertheless, is exciting throughout, sometimes even funny (albeit the humor is as grim as the story), and which ends on a note of hope, however faint. Today, we sometimes hear announcements of the death of the oldest person on Earth; “Children of Men” opens with the announcement of the death of the youngest person on Earth—he was 19. The world mourns, for the death represents the death of hope.

It’s November, 2027, and about 20 years before, every woman on Earth became infertile. A character tells us, “As the sounds of the playgrounds faded, despair set in.” London streets are still busy, but most of the vehicles are canopy-topped large-sized tricycles. There are cages of illegal immigrants—including Americans—at every bus stop and railway station. Heavily-armed police roam the streets. Billboards announce many varieties of underground movements, including “The Human Project.”

Occasionally bombs go off, like the one in the opening scene that almost kills Theo Faron (Clive Owen) on the streets of London. He’s a burned-out idealist, a former radical now working at a routine desk job in the slowly-disintegrating government. Over the course of the story, we learn that he began to lose hope when his young son Dylan died at the age of two. Now, like a character from film noir, Theo both forlornly clings to the shreds of his idealism, and faces the world with a gaze that’s both haunted and lost. And he drinks too much; he’s forever hauling out the contents of his pockets, and they always include a pint of booze.

He visits his old friend Jasper (a long-haired Michael Caine), who lives in a tidy, comfortable—but well-hidden—house out in the country. He was also a radical in his youth, and an award-winning political cartoonist (a nicely odd touch). Now he spends his days smoking and dealing in pot, and looking after his wife, evidently nearly brain-dead. He’s happy to see Theo, and a ray of sunshine in Theo’s wintry life.

Back in London, Theo’s unexpectedly kidnapped by “terrorist” Patric (Charlie Hunnam), partered with Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whom we meet later. Theo is surprised to learn that the kidnapping was masterminded by Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore), once his lover—and Dylan’s mother. She knows that Theo has a very wealthy cousin (he has both Michelangelo’s David and Picasso’s Guernica in his apartment) who can get transit papers (shades of “Casablanca”’s letters of transit) that will enable her to spirit a young woman out of the country and into the possible safe haven of The Human Project, rumored to have a well-fortified site in the Azores.
Reluctantly, Theo is won over, and finds himself teamed up with Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), the young fugitive, who, incredibly, is pregnant—the first known pregnancy in 20 years. Theo, Kee and Miriam (Pam Ferris), who used to be a midwife, flee from enemies and friends alike, hoping to reach the coast where Kee can be turned over to the crew of a boat called “Tomorrow.”

“Children of Men” is science fiction of the H.G. Wells school: a single major idea—worldwide infertility—is introduced, and we see how it has changed the world. Furthermore, this is a new single idea, especially in movies, and the movie doesn’t bother to try to explain the causes of the cessation of babies. (Whatever it is, it affects only human beings.)

It’s a rugged, hypnotically-involving movie with a great performance right at the center—Clive Owen is on screen for almost the entire movie, and not only doesn’t wear out his welcome, keeps us on edge, wondering if his frayed idealism will keep him on a heroic path. The movie is graced with some amazing stunt work; I’ve never seen some of these stunts before, and the list of stunt players at the end is very long.

Cuarón is a phenomenally talented director, creative in unusual, refreshing ways. He also directed “A Little Princess,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” easily the best in that series. Here, he uses very long takes which are rarely recognizable as such; there’s one involving a car that lasts almost ten minutes, with gunfire and action, and scenes shot both inside and outside the car. But these aren’t the director being a showoff; he’s pulling us into the movie, into Theo’s story, by having us right alongside the character throughout. He somehow renews the very ideas of stunt work, of on-screen violence.

P.D. James, author of the novel, and well known for her mysteries, has admitted that while the movie strays a good distance from her book, she’s very happy with how the film turned out. The movie has been in development for years, and like most such long-time-to-complete projects, evidently has gone through an army of screenwriters. The credited writers are Cuarón himself, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus and the wonderfully-named Hawk Ostby; there are undoubtedly as many more uncredited.

And yet the movie is remarkably of a piece, which is probably attributable to Cuarón as the master hand guiding the whole thing. The film is full of surprises—unexpected deaths, sudden turns of plot—which keep the audience on its toes, but which also, in retrospect, seem to be exactly what needed to happen, what HAD to happen.

Most of the actors are not on screen very long, but as is not uncommon for him, Caine makes a vivid, welcome impression, like someone from our shared past still there, still living in the way that suits him. Claire-Hope Ashitey is luminous as the pregnant Kee; at first somewhat puzzled by what’s happening to her body, she grows into a person to respect, even admire—and the growth is accompanied by good humor and courage.

One of the most surprising aspects of “Children of Men” is its rugged, always unexpected, humor. The world is grim; as Theo tells Jasper, “it was too late before the infertility thing happened.” It’s so grim that the government has begin passing out suicide pills, Quietus, which have a cheerful TV commercial. But people are still people, and they still make jokes.

It’s just as surprising that the movie is occasionally moving—grimly moving, as it is grimly funny—and that these more emotional moments come at unexpected moments. Jasper, seen from a distance, telling someone to “pull my finger.” Theo, Kee and their new companion making their way through a crowd of besieged illegal immigrants, then through the heavily-armed police who were just a moment before shelling the immigrants—and as Theo and his companions pass, both groups fall silent. Only to begin firing again once Theo and the others are out of the way.

The world is full of strange sights. For one thing, it’s full of dogs and cats; when Kee goes into labor, the soundtrack—always inventive, always fresh—is full of the sound of barking dogs. At the farm, a friendly kitten climbs Theo’s leg; elsewhere, he temporarily cuddles a big fat golden tabby. Dogs are everywhere, wagging their tails hopefully; dogs that don’t like anyone else unexpectedly like Theo. As he’s driven through London, he passes a park where someone is leading a zebra through a crowd; a bit later, there’s a camel, too. Inside a ruined school, Theo encounters a cautious deer; outside, there’s a cement triceratops.

“Children of Men” is a dark, gray film. And the cities are full of graffiti, gangs and violence, the sky is forever overcast, and there are throngs of illegal immigrants probably on the way to execution (there’s a quietly shocking shot of people warming themselves over a body being cremated), the final message—note the sound behind the end credits—of “Children of Men” is one of hope. Jasper may philosophically muse, “Why bother if life is going to make its own choices?” But Theo is a good man trying to help the world as much as he can; his actions are heroic, and he is our representative. “Children of Man” is as unusual, and as entertaining in its brutal but compassionate way, as anything in theaters now.

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