The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Children of Men

Written by James MacDowell.

Photo from the article Children of Men feels like a Casablanca (1942) for our time. Of course, it is certainly far from what Casablanca is most famous for being - i.e. a romance about tragic/honourable love (though there are hints of this towards the beginning) - but there are other strong parallels in the way it conveys isolationism being overcome for a greater good. What also encourages the comparison is this film’s ability to seemingly effortlessly work these kinds of ideas into such an airtight and hugely enjoyable genre-film framework.

Its story - that of a weary cynic deciding to sacrifice his comfy ennui for the good of a greater issue facing society - is somewhat familiar (not least from Casablanca itself), but seldom has it felt more convincing or urgent. Indeed, this familiar tale should really now be the cultural narrative of our age. We are currently seeing a disenchantment with government and global political policy on a scale that hasn’t been experienced since the 60s/70s, yet despite this there is far less of a sense of this dissatisfaction being mobilised in anything like the same way as it once was. Discontentment and frustration by themselves go only so far: if there is a general belief that nothing positive can be done with these thoughts, then they are finally as useful as inert apathy. I would argue that this is the state of mind that many currently find themselves in, and it is precisely what is being felt by the characters at the opening of Children of Men - albeit in a much heightened form.

The situation the film presents us with - the near-certain imminent extinction of mankind due to an unexplained global infertility - is a beautiful, intelligently exaggerated version of our particular malaise. This state of affairs has caused panic, chaos, some heightened political activism (the various revolutionary cells that are hinted at), but overall it seems to have settled (at least in Britain) into a general feeling of hopelessness. The image of a man (Danny Huston) collecting priceless, soon-to-be-worthless, works of art in a futile stab at permanence is a nicely poetic visual masterstroke: a last, desolate attempt at connection with the past beauties of man’s evolution on the eve of its destruction. More common to this world, however, seems to be the alcohol and pot-fuelled cheerful nihilism displayed by Owen and Caine, appropriately soundtracked - similarly nostalgically - by the more apocalyptic end of our musical present (in particular, ‘Insomniac’-era Radiohead and Aphex Twin). As with Rick (Bogart) at the beginning of Casablanca, these people know they are probably doomed, and also believe there is nothing they can do to change that fact.

The appearance of Julianne Moore, Owen’s political activist ex-wife, triggers the first step away from this inertia and towards Owen’s re-integration into the struggles of society (like Rick, we are told he used to be something of a revolutionary in a past life). He agrees to help her and her collective, we assume, mainly because he still harbours some kind of feelings for her. This is also the way it happens for Rick in Casablanca: after some initial, hard-boiled resentment of Ilsa’s new beau - the freedom-fighter Laslo - on principle, he begins to protect him from the Nazis mainly as an unspoken favour to his former lover. This is the middleground of social awareness: these characters are reluctantly doing the right thing, but only because it benefits them in some way. When Moore is killed, and Owen finds out about the pregnant immigrant Kee, he starts acting out of a concern for his fellow man instead of simple selfishness, much as Rick does at the extraordinarily satisfying conclusion of his story.

Casablanca was, of course, made at a time when World War II was still raging, meaning its call to involvement with global affairs was a rather more simple one to make - indeed, social responsibility took on a whole new and obvious form during the Second Word War: when it’s the spread of Nazism you’re being asked to fight, there really is no other option. Nevertheless, the film was shot whilst the US were still officially uninvolved, meaning its inspiring message still carried some kind of weight. Children of Men has nothing like as clear-cut a focus for its message - how could it? - but its overall narrative, of a cynic finding something outside of himself worth fighting for in a seemingly hopeless time for the world, is nevertheless a hugely valuable one for our cultural moment.

But of course, none of this would really mean anything if the film was not as good, and as entertaining, as it is. Clearly it is not designed as a call-to-arms, and we should not take it primarily as such. It is a genre film, albeit a boundary-crossing one - one part sci-fi, one part drama, two part action thriller, with a healthy dose of humour thrown in for good balance - and is intensely gripping seen as a cocktail of all these approaches. Its value as a picture of our present-day world and its fears is a direct result of the way it manages to so successfully and subtly work these elements into a form that is greatly entertaining in its own right. Images such as terrorist bombings in city streets, crowds of asylum seekers, ID card check-points, and protesters from different religious, racial and political groups hit home quietly and succinctly; they aren’t dwelt on to the point of obviousness, but neither do they feel at all grafted on, in the manner of some similar motifs in last year’s War of the Worlds. That they are often only glimpsed briefly, but insistently and repeatedly, makes the ostensibly genre-driven world onscreen instantly recognisable, and also rather effortlessly and honestly make it appear whole, since we are invited - and able - to fill in the blanks ourselves.

The wholeness, or real-ness, of the world in Children of Men is in fact one of its great triumphs, both on the level of adrenaline-pumping entertainment and sociological document. The film manages to make itself feel potentially unsafe, something very few action thrillers ever actually do, despite their best efforts. This is achieved here not only through the sights of a recognisably 21st Century chaos, but via the shooting style and plotting. The long-take, handheld camera technique used in many of the film’s most dramatic sequences (especially the road ambush and the climactic building siege) is effective to the point of nervous collapse. Far more effective than frantic cutting, actually seeing such carnage take place clearly within the space and time-frame of one shot is akin to experiencing it with the characters, here producing some of the most realistic-feeling action sequences in recent memory. One of these scenes in particular, in which Moore is shot and killed, is even more shocking because we are also made to feel that, surely, this cannot be happening: they can’t really be killing off the biggest star, and the most active character, in the film this early on; and yet they do. It is truly as massive a coup as Psycho’s shower scene was for its 1960 audience. All these things combine to make this world feel as if it has no set rules, and that pretty well anything could happen next, in other words: it operates like the world outside the cinema. For an audience living in the global climate that we currently are, no suggestion could be more terrifying than that.

Children of Men is the most exciting of a group of films recently released - or about to be released - by good, intelligent filmmakers who seem to be reclaiming genre cinema as a place for innovative, relevant work: Brokeback Mountain (2005), Munich (2005), Syriana (2005), A Scanner Darkly (2006), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), The Fountain (2006) etc. If the films it produces continue to be as good and as vital as this, long may the trend reign.

This Alternate Take was published on December 09, 2006.

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