Looking back at Children Of Men

It’s violent, funny, and very, very clever. It’s Children Of Men, and may be director Alfonso Cuarón’s finest film to date. Andrew takes a look back…

Guillermo del Toro has recently stated – possibly during an interview the perpetually busy writer, director and producer gave in lieu of sleep – that his friend Alfonso Cuarón’s new film Gravity is “incredibly well-calculated”, “very human”, and “so insane”.

I don’t think it’s only me who is excited by this news.

James Cameron, having worked with del Toro on the aborted (sigh) Mountains Of Madness, was consulted over technical matters. New tools and equipment had to be constructed to make the film. With Cuarón’s long-term cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in place, we can expect a riveting spectacle, combined with an involving story.

This is because Cuarón has set his standards very high. His most viewed work is surely Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban (Azkaban, incidentally, is a Latin word meaning, “The best one, you know, by that Mexican bloke”). But while that brought a new sense of magic to the wizarding franchise, the literary adaptation that really made me pay attention to his work was Children Of Men.

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The book, written by English crime writer PD James, is a very British dystopian character piece, with an overt suggestion that religion rekindles the humanity in its hugely flawed main character, Theo Faron. There’s a lot of tension, one very feral action sequence, and a lot of talking in the second half of the book. It’s a very different beast from its film adaptation, but well worth a read. Both are based on the premise of the human race’s infertility, leading to a slow dwindling of everything, and a world without children.

Cuarón’s adaptation involves a lot of changes, but keeps the journey of redemption faced by the main character intact, and although the film is crammed with Christian symbolism, this is not explicitly connected to Theo’s journey. The film can be summarised by the Biblical scripture the title has come from: verse three of Psalm 90, which reads (in the words of the King James Version), “Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.”

Clive Owen is breathtakingly good as Theo, younger than in the book and with a different back story. In a future where a child hasn’t been born in almost two decades, the jaded Theo ends up protecting the miraculously pregnant Kee from the government, and from those who would use the baby for political ends.

It’s probably going to be the defining performance of Owen’s career (along with Shoot ‘Em Up – by the beard of Bernard Cribbins, that’s a brilliantly stupid film), who may, sadly, be better known to the general public as the star of bog standard action films, despite an interesting and varied career. Obviously, the world being what it is, his best films are largely ignored at the box office.

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By the by, King Arthur made $203,567,857. Children Of Men took $69,959,751. I had a point to make there, but I accidentally lost the will to live. Anyway, I digress.

The book and film have very different but effective descriptions of an infertile world. The design work and scenery dressing turns modern day London into a plausible version of an impoverished future, and subtle changes to vehicles and billboards show how much imagination and effort has gone into convincing the viewer of this reality. Every aspect of the film has obviously been carefully planned, from music to costume (most obviously exemplified by Theo’s 2012 Olympics jacket), and the little touches add up to something as impressive as its more celebrated sequences.

Some films, like The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, have obviously had a huge amount of care and attention lavished on them that ends up translating itself to the big screen, even if the details are barely perceptible. Children Of Men is definitely one of these films.It also helps that the film is well cast. Danny Huston, Peter Mullan, and Charlie Hunnam all make small roles memorable, with Mullan making a particularly strong impression as prison camp guard, Syd.

The bigger roles are filled out by Michael Caine (who appears in a scene that rivals Shaun Of The Dead in terms of poignant fart jokes), Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Julianne Moore. There’s not a bad piece of acting in the film, even from the extras.

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When people talk about Children Of Men, though, they usually refer to the action sequence in Bexhill near the end of the film, where Theo is tracked by the camera as he runs through a warzone, from one building to another, while a battle rages around him. It lasts for nearly seven-and-a-half minutes before finally cutting away.

Crucially, as with a similarly impressive scene in Atonement, the action is given space to breathe, and is devastatingly evocative of time, place and situation. The technical mastery to create such a sequence is obviously impressive, but the fact is that it’s not something you immediately notice. The film has sucked you in. The story has done its job. You care, basically.

Let’s contrast this with another film scenario. The only film in the current Transformers franchise that I’ve seen is the first one. I quite liked it. It came at the end of yet another disappointing summer of films, where supposedly family fare had disappeared up its own arse in an attempt to be all dark and edgy. I liked Transformers because it was unpretentious, silly and fun. Technically, too, it was very impressive. The CGI for the robots looked perfectly realistic, the climactic fight brilliantly realised, and yet, in that film, if any of the characters had died, I wouldn’t have given a toss. It was, to me, an entirely disposable movie.

Children Of Men‘s action sequences are astonishing, powerful beasts, where the behind the scenes cheating merely serves to enhance the story. After setting the tone with a sudden and brutal moment at the start, Cuaron has established that the film will be laced with sudden pulses of violence, using handheld cameras (sparingly), pangs of sensory assault (especially aural), and unflinching shot choices, while building up pace, rhythm and momentum to a peak that culminates in a cathartic moment of release and amazement.

You’re breathing more heavily and your heart is thudding. It’s then that you become aware that you’re in the cinema, watching a film. You can’t believe what you’ve just seen, but that’s not because of the length of the scene, or the fact that you can’t see the joins, and it’s not just because the contents are exciting on a base level. You’ve been taken from feeling completely secure to surprise, then shock, then fear, but even though there’s blood on the lens, the scene continues at a frantic pace, the sense of panic overwhelming.

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It’s so many things, Children Of Men. Dystopian sci-fi, Christian fable, political thriller, political satire, family drama, action movie, a critique of contemporary Britain… and it uses the full potential of film to achieve all this. It’s rich, involving and funny. It’s violent, uncompromising, and warm. Best of all, when Cuarón saw the vanilla DVD of it in Woolworths one day, he immediately set about producing a two-disc version to replace it.

Gravity stars the highly bankable Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, so may yet prove to be an original sci-fi tale and a box office success. I’m cautiously optimistic about its chances. I’m very optimistic about it being a great film. Ideally, though, it’ll be both.

See more of our Looking Back articles here.

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