10-Year Retrospective: Children of Men
By Ben Gruchow
December 20, 2016
Owen, for his part, sells Theo's transformation from disaffected and dispassionate citizen to rebel mostly through facial expression. His dialogue is almost entirely functional, mostly unreflective, and that we come to understand the depth of his feeling and what each development implies is down mostly to nonverbal cues.
In fact, nobody in the cast falls down when it comes to character, although that'd perhaps be hard to do with the talent assembled here: Jasper (Michael Caine) and Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are the next most consequential to the story, with Miriam (Pam Ferris) following closely behind as midwife, both in the world before the crisis and to Kee herself. Ejiofor and Ferris, in particular among the supporting characters, get moments of startling dignity and emotion as the movie winds toward its final events; upon repeat viewing of the film, we see how organically they've constructed three-dimensional individuals out of little moments and observances.
Still, this is above all a director's exercise in storytelling more than an actor's, and Cuarón fulfills this role by packing Children of Men front to back with one of the most distinctive and total visual identities and evocations of time and place I've seen in any film, science fiction or otherwise. The fascinating thing about this distinction is how much it sneaks up on you. Most of the movie takes place in immediately recognizable and almost-contemporary setting, after all: London is very much a dilapidated incarnation of its real self, but we are still looking at a city that operates on the familiar rubric of commercial zoning, residential zoning, urban cores, and vehicle traffic. Other scenes take place in wooded homes, in run-down schools, in urbane and modernist settings that we can easily recognize as ours.
Yet, there are ancillary details and side stories and clues in the corners of almost every significant sequence in the film: confused and frightened refugees packed tightly in caged queues, like animals; endless reminders of surveillance and population control; backstories told quickly, judiciously in the context of simple and pointed newspaper clippings. Cuarón shoots on film, using available light and mostly location shooting; certain parts of the film, like Theo's apartment, may be constructed on sets, but the illusion of a contiguous and organically decaying civilization is flawless on the basis of production design alone.
Cuarón employs two more directorial tricks, one high-impact and one deceptively low-key; working with cinematographer Emmanuelle Lubezki, the deceptively low-key decision is to shoot the entire film at a fixed focal length of approximately 50mm, or roughly the way the naked eye perceives the world. This is the same thing that Cuarón did with 2004's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. There it was more of a stylistic choice; here, it's another element of the set dressing in the way it draws us in to a used-future setting with the clarity and authority of a documentary rather than a major studio feature.
The high-impact trick employed is the use of long, long, long takes, at four crucial points during the narrative. Two of these in particular stand out, both as jaw-dropping feats of technological prowess and as armrest-clenching sustained passages of intensity and violence. These are not wholly organic long takes, it's true; in both cases, they're digitally stitched together from a half-dozen shorter takes. It doesn't matter. The aim seems to have been to exploit a concept - that a cut from one shot to another represents a psychological moment of relief for the viewer, because it allows the mind to re-establish the proceedings as a make-believe construct - and to refuse the viewer that break. At this they are all too successful; not only do these sequences hold up to close scrutiny a decade later, but they never for a moment exist outside of the delicate fabric of the narrative. This balancing act between raw visual and total narrative integration, succeeding even after all this time, is as impressive as anything else.
Only in its final act, when the story proceeds to a refugee camp in the real-life city of Bexhill-on-Sea, does Children of Men let go of its tenuous connection to readily-identifiable settings and descend fully into a hellish war zone. This leads to an unrelenting cat-and-mouse game through bombed-out streets among the pops of military rifles and mortar blasts, and the intensity maintains itself for so long that it becomes exhausting. It's a fitting directorial exploit, then, that our defenses are mostly down during the film's climactic moment. It mostly involves a slow escort, with only a few short words of dialogue punctuating it, and yet it is so powerful in the combination of emotions it unlocks in us as the audience that we are simply overwhelmed.
There is much more I haven't covered. I could go on about the score by Sir John Tavener, which finds a haunting vocal repetition that becomes as much of a leitmotif as the swan song of those lost frequencies. I could go on about the way the film deftly and invisibly depicts how hopelessness in civilization breeds intra-population suspicion and contempt, and how easy it is for basic altruism to still break through it in the end. I could go on about the violence in the film, and how it never once shies away from the acts on-screen or glorifies or cheapens them - an act which is not quite as rare now as it was in 2006, but still lends itself to an entirely different rhythm from most violent films. I could go on, and on, and on, and lose the forest of the film's greatness in the trees of delineating every aspect of it. And this is a great film, one of the best ever made; try as I might, I cannot think of any aspect of it that does not somehow transcend its genre trappings. That a film with this degree of ruthless clarity came from a major studio is shocking; that every single aspect of it still soars ten years later includes it into a very selective club: those films that are wholeheartedly works of art, top to bottom, that only resonate more deeply with time and repeat viewings.