Cinema," Alfonso Cuarón told The Seattle Times in December, "[has] become now what I call a medium for lazy readers. ... Cinema is a hostage of narrative. And I'm very good at narrative as a hostage of cinema." He was referring to his film Children of Men, and he captured its strengths and weakness admirably. It is a frequently moving, occasionally harrowing tour de force of cinematic technique; yet it is also somehow hollow. It was simultaneously one of last year's best movies (better, I think, than any of those nominated for Best Picture) and one of its larger disappointments.
The film, just released on DVD, is an adaptation of the 1993 P.D. James novel The Children of Men, and Cuarón's alterations were not limited to trimming the definite article from the title. James's novel was an explicitly Christian fable about faith and loss, love and solitude, our duties as parents of children and as children of parents. Cuarón hewed back these themes aggressively and substituted contemporary political references--to Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, to anti-immigrant sentiment in Great Britain and the United States, to firefights on the streets of Iraq. But while Cuarón's changes add resonance to James's story, they don't offer meaning. Children of Men retains the shape of a parable, but lacks the message.
In James's original telling, the year is 2021 and it has been 25 years since the world's last human being was born. The cause of this mass infertility--biological catastrophe? divine retribution?--is unknown, but it has led to a deep global malaise. Humankind is gradually petering out, and with it all hope and passion and moral scruple. Decoupled from any possibility of procreation, even sex has lost its recreational appeal. People want little more than "freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom from boredom." In Great Britain, they are granted these limited blessings by the Warden of England, an omnipotent but widely popular dictator. James's protagonist, Theo, is a history professor (one of many professions rendered quasi-irrelevant by the fact that there are no longer any young people), and a man whose life is empty of purpose but full of regret--for unkindnesses to his now-deceased parents, for a ruined marriage, for the baby daughter he accidentally ran over with a car and killed decades earlier. (James's description of this last is one of the most crushing passages I've ever read, and not merely because I have a 20-month-old of my own.) But Theo is also cousin, friend, and former adviser to the Warden of England, and it is for this reason that he is approached by a small group of ineffectual revolutionaries, in whose conspiracy he gradually becomes entangled.
Cuarón rightly simplifies this story for the screen. His Theo (Clive Owen) is not an academic but a mid-level bureaucrat, and his connection to a government minister is less close and less lofty. When the radicals approach him, it is in part because one of them is his ex-wife, Julian (Julianne Moore), and all they ask from him is that he obtain papers that will enable a young African "fugee" (refugee) named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) to travel from London to the coast. He does, but the papers require him to travel with her, and it soon becomes apparent that she is pregnant--the first woman so blessed in two decades. (Kee does not appear in the novel; rather, it is Julian who becomes pregnant, and this revelation--and the consequent journey from London--doesn't take place until much later in the story.) The hope is that, with Theo's help, Kee will be able to rendezvous with a ship belonging to the Human Project (another Cuarón addition), a legendary, secretive group of scientists who will help her deliver and care for her baby. On the way, Theo and Kee are beset on all sides--by government police, by vengeful revolutionaries, by rioting fugees, and by the Army units sent to put them down.
The political landscape Cuarón paints is a brutal one, and he paints it in a palette of dirt and drizzle. Rarely has ugliness been portrayed with such beauty as it is by Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The future they envision is unlike the techno-camp of Brazil or even the cyber-grunge of Bladerunner; rather, with the exception of a few sleek computer monitors scattered about, this is a world where things have been wearing out for 20 years and no one has much bothered to replace, let alone improve, them. London is still London, only dirtier, and with heavy, iron cages for captured fugees as ubiquitous as streetcorner mailboxes.
Cuarón's accelerated plot gets him quickly out of this urban blight and into the still more savage countryside. There, he stages a few of the most nail-biting cinematic sequences in recent years--a roadside ambush shocking in its sudden violence, an excruciating escape in a car that won't start (echoes of Night of the Living Dead), and a long, quasi-single-shot trek (actually composed of a few shots stitched seamlessly together) through several blocks of an internment-camp war zone. It's refreshing to see filmmaking so kinetic that aspires to more than just stylishness: In the internment-camp scene, for instance, Cuarón has explained that the single-shot format was an effort to make the environment itself a character in the film, an effort that succeeds brilliantly.
In addition to the bravura direction, Children of Men has a powerful script (by Cuarón and several co-writers) and smart, committed performances--especially by Owen, who has quickly become one of the most compelling leading men in film. Yet, despite all this, Children of Men founders in its latter moments--not a lot, but enough. Its failure is less one of plot than of something deeper, a composing idea to undergird the plot.