I was a mess by the end of “Children of Men.” Red, tear stained face. Blood shot eyes. Snotty nose. Short of breath. Drained.
To call it a tearjerker implies it is something it is not. The film is powerful, emotional, visceral filmmaking that becomes overwhelming. You’d be hard pressed not to have some sort of emotional reaction to the film.
“Children of Men” is science fiction deeply rooted in reality. It is a cautionary tale of weight and depth. It is a story of hope and sacrifice.
The year is 2027 and the world has gone to shit. In this world women have become infertile, but that sci-fi wrinkle aside this is a future that is not far from the present. The film is like a hypothesis of what may well happen if humanity and current events stay their present course. I’m not saying infertility, but rather social chaos.
The plot is simple. Ex-activist Theo (Clive Owen, “The Inside Man,” “Closer”) is contacted by his former partner in activism and love (Julianne Moore, “Far From Heaven,” “The Hours”) to aid in getting Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey, “Shooting Dogs”), the first pregnant woman in 18 years, to a safe haven where her baby will be protected from public scrutiny and use as a political tool.
The film is set in an England that is not dissimilar to the one in “V for Vendetta.” While that film was highly stylized and Gothic in its atmosphere and tone, “Children of Men” feels more like a reflection of reality. It is possible to view “V for Vendetta’s” as just a fun, if subversive, action film, but when “Children of Men” explodes into violence in its final third, the immediacy and authenticity of the action make it difficult to disconnect.
Characters come and go rather quickly in Theo’s quest to get Kee to safety. We meet Theo’s wealthy cousin, (Danny Huston, “The Aviator”), an anything-for-the-cause activist (Chiwetel Ejiofor, “The Inside Man”), a military drone, a former mid-wife (Pam Ferris, “Matilda”) and a gypsy.
Of these characters, Ejiofor stands out as a man trying to do what he thinks he is right, even if it takes extreme measures. Ferris also leaves an impression as a woman who remembers a better time and sees a way back to it with Kee. Known for playing meanies, Ferris adds surprising warmth to her character.
With the exception of Ferris and Ejiofor, these supporting character aren’t very developed, but they don’t need to be. They are all key to the film, not just as plot points, but at creating the atmosphere of a future that is bleak and with little hope.
Michael Caine as Theo’s friend Jasper, an aging hippie who lives hidden way in the woods listening to classic rock and dealing pot, is the most vivid characterization of the supporting cast. A loose, longhaired Caine provides the film with light comic relief. He’s a bit loopy, but Caine gives the character an underlining poignancy.
Theo is a classic tragic hero. He has lost his faith in humanity and the world. He chooses a slow death, poisoning himself with alcohol and cigarettes. When he takes up the call to activism again, it is more out of a sense of loyalty and old feelings that have yet to fade away. Owen’s scenes with Moore capture the essence of something once shared.
Theo hides his pain behind his vices and seeming indifference to the world, but Owen allows his hurt to come to the surface. A scene in which Theo eavesdrops on Caine relating to Kee how Theo lost his faith resonates. Owen is an actor with a wonderfully expressive face that can say more than pages of dialogue ever could.
Ashitey’s Kee is a woman who is pregnant in a world that has taught her nothing about birth or how to raise a child. Kee is a caustic, sassy teen, which Ashitey plays well, but the performance is memorable for the fear and confusion she infuses into the role.
The journey to get Kee to her destination is Theo’s redemption and renewal of his faith. It is a timeless arc, that if handled poorly can come off as trite and insincere, but director Alfonso Cuarón brings the right balance to the material.
Cuarón, who has made films as varied as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “The Little Princess” and “Y tu mamá también” is a filmmaker whose films are beautiful to look at and feature a sense of magic and awe. That holds true here, but there’s also grittiness present in “Children of Men.”
Cuarón builds emotional tension at a steady pace leading to a final half hour that grips in a way few movies do. He utilizes hand held shots in a rebellion sequence that are unsettlingly long and that place you very much in the action.
This is a device that has been used before, but rarely so effectively. Unlike some uses of hand held in battle scenes, there is fluidness to the camera movement. It is still fast, and a bit disorienting, as it should be, but never confusing.
As the film draws to its conclusion the tension can be overpowering. Cuarón has made it clear what is at stake. By first showing horror and despair and hinting at the way out, the films has a resolution that is affecting and full of a genuine sense of hope. It is an emotionally draining trip, but one worth taking.