In a here-and-now where the primacy of children is given ample lip service by proponents of any and all social issues, it is refreshing, and not a little thought-provoking, to see in Alfonso Cuaron’s CHILDREN OF MEN, based on the P.D. James novel of the same name, a world in which this is actually the case. The awe and wonder elicited by the sight of the first baby born in almost 19 years, enough to stop the gunfire and other unpleasant manifestations of political differences, is a potent and arresting image for a present where partisans are more likely to incite mayhem in the name of the sort of world their children will grow up in, rather than sue for peace so that they might grow up at all.
In this future of 2027, emotions and politics are stretched to extremes. Terrorists agitate against draconian immigration policies that Great Britain, the most stable government left in Europe, perhaps the world, has set in place. It sets citizens to spying on one another and carts the refugees from anarchy and worse to what can charitably be described as concentration camps before a final deportation that may or may not occur. The bulk of the population, though, has settled into a psychological torpor, where neo-fascist rule and bombs going off in protest against it barely register. Theo (Clive Owen), falls into that latter group. He can calmly return to work after an explosion destroys a storefront half a block away from him. Using the excuse to his boss that the murder of the youngest person on the planet, 18 and change, has affected him deeply, he takes the rest if the day off. It’s his last moment of peace. A kidnapping by terrorists, an offer of a lucrative job from them, and a reunion with an old flame (Julianne Moore) who is their leader, puts Theo at the center of the planet’s most momentous event in almost two decades.
That would be the Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitay), eight-months pregnant and with no explanation about why she could conceive when no other woman on earth has been able to for so long. Theo, an ex-political agitator himself, and cynical by nature, overhears something disturbing from the rebel group sheltering her and determines to keep her and her baby out of the hands of any one national group, legal or other, that will use, or kill, the baby for political ends, and take mother and child to sanctuary with the semi-legendary Human Project.
Cuaron, like the book, does not dwell overlong on the specifics of what is happening in Theo’s world. There are, instead, sometimes baffling, sometimes hair-raising glimpses of it. Theo’s cousin (Danny Huston), in an art ark where he has collected Europe’s art treasures in one place less with regard to their intrinsic, cultural value, than with having them within reach. There are the mad soldier (Peter Mullan), speaking of himself in the third person and proving both savior and betrayer and equally adept at both while remaining within the good graces of his superiors, and the madwomen who navigates Theo and Kee through the horrors of a detention camp while not quite grasping reality. And there’s Theo’s ex-mentor, Jasper, played by an all but unrecognizable Michael Caine in counter-culture drag and righteous energy, who deals in controlled substances with the local constabulatory and collects the suicide kits provided by the government for those whose depression gets the better of them. Abandonded schools, military police on streetcorners, and posters calling for the west leaving Iraq alone make for an eerie resonance with the present.
The film is shot in a high-contrast exposure that renders this a gray and sinister landscape of nihilistic despair that is the external manifestation of the psychology of a world population without a future. Even in the bucolic comfort of the leafy glade where Jasper lives far from the Big Brother reality of the cities can’t escape. The mood is oppressive, and the performances echo the sense of paranoia rampant in a totalitarian society. Owen in particular is excellent, with a demeanor that bespeaks a heart so long deadened to hope on a global scale that returning to passions of any sort is difficult.
Cuaron works within those confines to dazzling effect. He uses long, unbroken takes, including one that finds Theo seeking safety during a gun battle that goes on so long that it creates an unbearable sense of desperation, and for what what Cuaron is doing to register, albeit as a secondary reaction. The rawness of the film’s gestalt is conveyed through these lengthy shots, which dominate the film, adding to the sense of claustrophobia. By using a real-time approach to sequences where the protagonists are pursued, or are lost, or are in some other way are trying to make sense of an increasingly surreal and life-threatening situations, the sense of being trapped psychically if not always physically, of looking for an escape and not knowing where to find it, becomes a palpable reality for the viewer.
As with the best speculative fiction, CHILDREN OF MEN creates a world at once familiar and alien, a world where present trends have come to full fruition and with a logic that can’t be denied. Cautionary tale and thriller rolled into one, it is a terrifying vision of the future, all the more gripping for ringing so true.