It’s funny how a number of this year’s Oscar favourites have namesakes in very dissimilar from previous years. Inside Out is also a British thriller in which Telly Savalas and Robert Culp try to recover Nazi gold, The Revenant is also a dark comedy about a zombie-vampire hybrid, and one must hope that somewhere, Tommy Wiseau is dusting off his tux and his football, confused but vindicated by how his legendary cult classic The Room is finally getting some buzz.
Meanwhile, on a far more serious note, Room has scooped a number of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director for Lenny Abrahamson and Best Actress for Brie Larson. It’s definitely not to be confused with anything that has gone before and it’s hard to think of another film in recent memory that has been quite so emotionally affecting and effective.
The titular room is a shed in which five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has lived with his Ma (Brie Larson) for his entire life. To his mind, inside is Ma and TV and Sink and Wardrobe and Toilet and Skylight, and outside is outer space, where only angels, aliens and the mysterious Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) dwell. This is an elaborate fantasy that Ma has built to keep Jack from noticing that they are both being held in captivity, but when she reaches a tipping point, she hatches a plot to get them both away from Old Nick.
Although the story of Emma Donoghue’s Booker Prize nominated novel is something of a known quantity, (and she adapts her own story for the screen) the trailers give away a fair few of its surprises. We’ll aim to keep some of those back, but if you want to go in completely clean, all you really need to know is that this is one of the very best films of the last 12 months, tackling a grim subject with equal parts gravitas and child-like wonder.
In achieving this, it’s impossible to overestimate the contributions of the two actors who carry the film between them. Nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay is a hell of a discovery, giving a performance that instantly ranks amongst the greatest child acting turns ever committed to cinema. So much of the film relies upon crediting Jack as a character, not least because he is the audience’s perspective, but between Tremblay’s performance and Abrahamson’s brilliant direction of him, the character soars.
Early highlights include the monumental realisation that a dog he has made up, which can’t possibly exist as far as he knows, really isn’t ever coming to play with him. That’s perhaps the least of the complex scenes that Tremblay brings to life with apparent ease and the actor shows extraordinary emotional intelligence as a character who’s far less self-aware.
Equally important is the role of Brie Larson as Ma. While Jack has been raised in this gnostic fantasy, oblivious to the horrifying truth, it’s Ma’s tremulous resolve that tips the grown-up audience off, even as she play-acts in order to keep Jack happy. Larson plays an absolute blinder in the role, both vulnerable and steely in equal measure, and even such in a strong year for female leads, the Oscar is hers to lose.
Other characters orbit around the contained action, the most invasive of all being Old Nick, played with a disgusting coat of self-righteous slime by Bridgers (who previously played a similar role in Lucky McKee’s The Woman and must be alarmed by the possibility of typecasting.) Pleasantville stars Joan Allen and William H. Macy also figure into the plot as Ma’s distraught parents, and Orphan Black‘s Tom McCamus also lends some much-needed warmth in the darker passages of the film.
But the dynamic between mother and son remains pivotal to the story and Abrahamson and Donoghue do a brilliant job of subtly letting us know what’s going on, even when it’s something that our point-of-view character can’t necessarily process. The result is utterly gut-wrenching- personally, I had to see this twice because I spent most of my first viewing sobbing and gasping.
If all of that sounds horribly depressing, then rest assured, Room is also just about the most life-affirming film that you’ll see. Abrahamson’s versatility has already been in evidence in his previous films – going from the low-key drama What Richard Did to the hilarious Frank in the last two years is impressive for any director – but this is his crowning achievement to date. Levity is in short supply, as befits the subject matter, but there are certainly joyous and funny moments to be had here too.
There aren’t any fantasy or science fiction elements here, but because we’re viewing the story as a child understands it, it often feels fantastical. To this end, Abrahamson finds innovative ways of shooting the titular Room from the perspective of someone who has never known anything different, shooting close-ups in wide angles. Through some combination of this and composer Stephen Rennick’s ethereal score, the setting becomes a microcosm that nevertheless contains multitudes.
Room will definitely give you an emotional workout and it’s guaranteed to leave no viewer unmoved. It’s set squarely within four walls from the outset, but you will come out on the other side transported by the tremendous story and the world-beating performances and the marvellous direction. It’s disturbing and harrowing, yes, but it’s uplifting in the ultimate sense – a film that leaves you more optimistic about the world afterwards than you were beforehand.
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