Dir: Alfonso Cuaron. US-UK. 2006. 108mins.
Unwrap the fascinatingdystopian vision of the near-future in Alfonso Cuaron's Children Of Men - based on the sci-fi novel by British literarybaroness PD James - and you find a fairly ordinary movie with stock characters.But if its backdrop and story never quite coalesce into a satisfying whole, thenthe film is saved by its sheer imaginative verve and by the terrific chase andbattle sequences, which replace the usual fantasy rhetoric of the genre with asense of real, cine-verite danger.
Unusual in its rejection ofthe widescreen format and extensive use of handheld camera, this edgily urbanfuture vision is not obvious multiplex material, particularly in the US, whereit goes on limited release on Dec 25 (Sept 22 in the UK). It is also, with theexception of fairly brief appearances by Julianne Moore and Michael Caine, aone-star vehicle - and lead Clive Owen is still only near the beginning of histransformation from arthouse attraction to marquee name.
But the controversy that maybe stirred by the film's clear political message about the dangers of 'homelandsecurity' should not trouble distributors, and may turn out to be apublicity-generating plus. Children Of Men ishardly going to appeal anyway to the sort of audiences that would be botheredby its heavily-couched critique.
The premise is neatlypresented via an opening TV news bulletin about the death of the world'syoungest person - who is over 18 years old. Women suddenly started becominginfertile somewhere around 2007, and soon stopped having babies altogether. Theconsequence, by the year 2027, is a world without hope, in which anarchy isrife and most countries are in a state of chaos. Only Britain resists, thanks to an aggressively pursued policy ofisolationism, backed up by the army's rounding up and deportation of illegalimmigrants, or "fugees".
This is not the Orwelliandictatorship of 1984 nor the neo-fascist regime of V For Vendetta,but a more credible degraded democracy in which London looks pretty much liketoday - except that it's even dirtier, there are more soldiers around,desperate bands roam the streets, the rich live in gated compounds and thecapital's black taxis have been replaced by moped-rickshaws. The governmentencourages citizens to report 'fugees' to the police and hands out suicide kitsfor anyone who wants to take the quick way out.
Clive Owen plays Theo, awashed-out former activist who now holds down a government job and drinks toforget. Contacted by a radical group known as the Fishes, which is led by hisformer lover, Julian (Julianne Moore), he is persuaded to arrange safe passesfor - and eventually accompany - Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a black African'fugee' who has somehow managed to get pregnant.
Clive Owen makes a good reluctant hero: he plays Theo as an ordinary guy, dishevelled and morally numb, who needs a lot of persuasion to take on the role of world saver. Julianne Moore, the committed activist who seems less floored than her former partner by the loss of the child she and Theo had together, is hardly in the frame long enough to make much of an impact. The other characters are even less rounded, with the exception of the pot-smoking counter-culture hermit played by Michael Caine, who we begin to care about just before he leaves the scene.
The inventive use of UKlocations, such as Upper Heyford RAF barracks (which becomes a Guantanamo-styledetention centre) or the Tate Modern art gallery grounds the parable in realityin a way that studio work would not. The production design stresses Cuaron'svision of the future as a washed-out, washed-up version of the present and inmany respects, things have gone backward rather than forward: cars arepatched-up models from 20 years ago (ie the present: if you never expected tosee a Fiat Multipla in a sci-fi movie, think again) and characters dress inthrift shop cast-offs.
The quirky soundtrack mixesmodern classical requiems, such as a specially-composed theme oratory by JohnTavener, with a raft of songs from The Libertines, Pink Floyd and others.
One of the neat things about Cuaron's approach to the chase genre is the way he grounds it in the messiness of real-life escapes: a getaway car won't start when you want it to, bullets hit targets and look and sound frighteningly real, and Theo cuts his foot on a piece of glass for the simmple reason that it's there - and he's only wearing flip-flops.
But it's the photography andediting that impress above all else. Children OfMen takes a leaf out of Paul Greengrass' book, proving, as in BloodySunday and United 93, that the long takes and mobile, handheldcamera style of the TV news documentary can be used to rack up the tension andthe believabilty of the thriller and action-adventure genres.
Hit And Run Productions
Thomas A Bliss
Timothy J Sexton
based on the novel by PD James