Canon Entry - Children of Men (2006)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
In this grim, fully-realized world of Children of Men, which is set only a few years in the future as of the writing of this review, women have mysteriously become infertile. As a result, many countries have exploded into chaos. Only Britain “soldiers on” as a fortress against the swarming, foreign masses. Theo (Clive Owen) is a former revolutionary who is contacted by his still radical wife (Julianne Moore) to help a young refugee get out of England. Soon, he becomes embroiled in a desperate escort mission as he discovers that the refugee, Kee, is pregnant with the world’s first child in eighteen years.
It is tempting to call Children of Men a prescient film. Ten years after the film came out, Britain left the European Union, a move many believe to be motivated by isolationist tendencies and xenophobia. In the U.S. currently, extremist groups feel free to spew their hate speech knowing that they will face relatively little punishment from the executive branch of government at least. However, director Alfonso Cuaron made it clear that one could find real-life parallels of all of the events and circumstances depicted in the film at the time was being made. And indeed, much of the film imitates real-world footage of war zones and refugee camps quite closely.
Emmanuel Lubezki is Cuaron’s cinematographer and, more importantly, his artistic partner. I often despise the overuse of handheld in most modern films, because I think it limits the film’s aesthetic so severely, but I have never minded it in any film Lubezki has worked on. He and Cuaron make such great use of natural light when available, and they know how to capture the drama of a scene without using obvious tricks. I’m thinking especially of the scene where Kee reveals to Theo that she is pregnant. The camera focuses just enough on Theo’s reaction to capture the weight of the moment without an obvious zoom or something similarly flashy. It works so well that it would have worked just as well without John Taverner’s score at that moment.
If I ever meet Lubezki, I will have to ask him if he watched Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying because the scenes in the tenements towards the end of the film look remarkably like similar scenes in Children of Men. In Cranes, the film was supposed to be a piece of Soviet propaganda but managed to tell a rich, emotional story about the devastating effects of wartime.
In Children of Men, the main enemy is propaganda, the false image that this Fascist version of Britain projects.
Even though we spend much of this film with characters who are considered the dregs of society, we have to imagine that there is a sizable group that never quite engages with this segment of humanity. A scene in which Theo goes to his rich friend to get the transit papers that his ex-wife requested is especially telling. His friend lives in an impossibly luxurious flat in London, which is stocked with famous works of art such as Michelangelo’s David. There is a nice touch of visual irony when they have dinner with Picasso’s Guernica hanging over them, one of the most famous depictions of the horrors of war. There is even a sullen and overmedicated young man thoroughly immersed in a digital device (the first iPhone would come out roughly a year after this film debuted, another example of the prescience that Cuaron insists does not exist in his film.) When Theo pointedly asks why his friend holds on so dearly to these remnants of Western culture, he replies, “I try not to think about it.”
The film also very smartly observes that the people on the other side are susceptible to the same tendency for exploitation. The people who are protecting Kee want to use her and her child as a symbol of their resistance. What is made abundantly clear though is that they have a very limited regard for Kee’s personal safety and her freedom to choose what she wants to do with her life. There could have been a whole film just about this struggle, and it’s not even the only conflict at the center of this work.
Even if this film seems to have been an all-too-accurate depiction of the state of the world then and now, it’s important to note that the basic driving force of this film is hope and faith, which are inextricably intertwined in this film. It is easy to paste over a Christian reading of this film; in fact, this film has been described as basically a modern Nativity story.
If you don’t belong to that particular faith however, its depictions of humanity should be a huge relief in this morass of hopelessness that Theo has to negotiate. The faith that Kee has in Theo is so strong that it is what motivates him to brave impossibly dangerous situations. Clive Owen has said that when he first read the script, he didn’t quite know how to play his character and that he simply trusted Cuaron and his ability to deliver a great film. I think Owen was underselling himself quite a bit. As thrilling and suspenseful as this film is, it is Theo’s emotional and spiritual journey that we connect to, from a disillusioned depressive to truly honorable man. It is important that his most heroic acts are not of the traditionally masculine sort. He rarely commits violence, and his instinct is to retreat from conflict, which might be a liability in most situations, but is essential here.
I think it could have been easy to make this film a completely cynical work, which would have been a perfectly legitimate artistic choice. There are episodes of Black Mirror for that sort of pessimism. What this film does is much harder; it manages to be realistic yet is brave enough to inspire hope even when the time is darkest, and it’s so easy to shut yourself off from the world.