The Curmudgeon


Sunday, January 28, 2007

Children of Men

Alfonso Cuarón 2006

Alfonso Cuarón's superbly designed adaptation of P D James' novel opens in the grey, grimy London of November 2027, a Blairite paradise whose drab streets and rusting vehicles are colourfully illuminated by animated advertisements and government exhortations to report illegal immigrants, who are kept in cages as they await deportation. Images of violence and social chaos from across the planet are capped with the Union Jack and the slogan, "The World Has Collapsed - Only Britain Soldiers On".

The cause of this collapse is an eighteen-year plague of infertility which has afflicted the entire human race. As the film begins, the world's youngest person has been knifed to death by an insulted autograph hunter. Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a boozy ex-activist working at Britain's somnolent Ministry of Energy, hears the news on a public television in a café which is blown up by a terrorist bomb moments after he leaves. The explosion, like all the violence in Children of Men, is as far from Hollywood's pretty holocausts as can be imagined: no slow-motion or bright orange flames, just a loud ugly noise, billows of dust, the screams and moans of the injured and a ringing in Theo's ears which his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) later informs him is the sound of the cells in his aural canals dying: "once it's over you'll never hear that frequency again, so enjoy it while it lasts."

Julian is part of an underground group which shelters illegal immigrants and needs Theo's help in getting a travel permit for one rather important individual. Theo, who has spent a considerable portion of his past life trying to numb a once active social conscience, finds himself guarding and sheltering a specimen of that most threatening enemy of the state, a teenage, unmarried illegal immigrant mother - first against a ruthless faction of Julian's group, then against the authorities.

It's unfortunate that the thriller element is never properly integrated with the story's basic premise. In P D James' book, the infertility epidemic and the miraculous new pregnancy are explicitly a religious allegory: rather than Cuarón's vision of social collapse, James portrays a world in which the increasing dearth of human beings has led to a soulless affluence. Her Theo Faron is a bookish, fiftyish academic, whose acquaintance with Britain's despotic ruler is vitally important to the plot; in the film, Theo's relationship with Nigel (Danny Huston) is forgotten after a single scene. This is a shame, as Nigel is the kind of character of whom one would like to see more, and is certainly more interesting than Jasper (Michael Caine), Theo's aged-hippy ex-cartoonist friend and moral guide: Nigel has rescued Picasso's Guernica from the anarchy in Spain, has a socially handicapped teenage son, and says he copes with the world by not thinking about it. The infertility epidemic receives the same casual treatment as the character, being largely reduced to a McGuffin on which to base a thoroughly conventional, though flawlessly executed, chase thriller. As a religious and political unbeliever, I was left rather cold by James' Anglican-Tory dystopia, and found it far inferior to her detective fiction; but she did at least take the trouble to bring her premise and her plot into some sort of convergence.

Still and all, Children of Men is a creditable piece of work: well performed; full of lovely touches like Theo's "London 2012" Olympic sweatshirt; and, population aside, in its urban scenes an unpleasantly convincing vision of what London will in fact be like in twenty years' time. The climactic battle scene is grimly authentic in its noise, dust, confusion and general ugliness, and the ending (despite the time-honoured abdominal bullet wound which has somehow gone unnoticed until things quietened down) is admirably inconclusive. It's just a pity that Cuarón and his four fellow-screenwriters could not bring the same degree of imagination to the script as Jim Clay and Jeffrey Kirkland evidently put into the production design.


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