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.
The problem is that a world without children is clearly a metaphor, but Cuarón doesn't quite seem to know for what. James is a devout Anglican, and for her the meaning of a world without children is entirely clear: It is a world without God. The creation of new life is, after all, not only the most palpable miracle to which most of us will ever be privy, but a form of afterlife as well (especially for those of us who, unlike James, are skeptical of the literal kind). Children give us hope and purpose that extends beyond our own spans on Earth and the knowledge that, after we're gone, we will still be judged. For James, a world without God is an abomination.
For Cuarón--who is not, to my knowledge, a religious believer, or at least not one so fervent as James--a world without God looks a lot like, well, the world, perhaps with a few more internment camps dotting the landscape. Much of his film seems disconnected from the central fact of a childless society, which for him serves as little more than an explanation for public lethargy in the face of a repressive police state. At times, there is even explicit tension between Cuarón's purposes and James's original vision: Ross Douthat, for instance, smartly noted that the anti-immigrant fervor Cuarón has made a central element of the film makes very little sense in the context of a barren nation: Wouldn't a tired and aging populace want to import immigrant labor (as it does in James's novel) to help with society's menial tasks?
Cuarón is a ferociously gifted filmmaker (among his accomplishments, he's the only director to have brought anything resembling magic to the Harry Potter oeuvre), but he is not a polemicist, and The Children of Men is a polemical work. Dispensing with James's Anglican allegory is fine; but Cuarón fails to develop an alternative animating premise that might have given purpose to his narrative.
It isn't until the end of the film that the awkward fit between James's vision and Cuarón's becomes truly problematic. (Spoiler alert.) Both novel and film climax with the birth of a child. In James's book, it's made quite explicit that this event has changed the world forever; the old order, moral and political, will be overthrown. When Kee gives birth in the film, by contrast, Cuarón seems unsure what significance, if any, to attach to this historic development. When the warring soldiers and immigrants of the internment camp witness the baby's face, they lower their weapons and stare in wonderment--for about 90 seconds, following which they go back to shooting at one another. Has the world changed any at all? Will it? The fact that Kee and Theo and the baby are trying to flee the country, rather than mend it, further undermines any narrative connection between the miraculous birth and the future of Cuarón's tyrannical British state.
As a result, a film that began as the story of a society concludes as the story, merely, of a man and a woman and a baby (their own fates largely ambiguous), a moral shrinkage that drains of import everything that has come before. This is the fundamental disappointment of Children of Men: It is a film pregnant with meaning that, in the end, gives birth only to questions.
The Home Movies List: Clive Notes
- Croupier (1998). Owen already had a decade of British stage and television under his belt when this Mike Hodges neo-noir first got him attention stateside. Credit Roger Ebert, who compared Owen to a young Connery, with starting the Owen-as-007 meme that would persist for nearly a decade.
- Gosford Park (2001). When your performance stands out in a cast featuring (among many others) Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, Michael Gambon, and Maggie Smith, it's a pretty clear sign you've arrived. Owen was perhaps the closest thing to a lead in this marvelous but very unAltmanlike Altman film, a social analysis posing as a comedy of manners posing as a murder mystery.
- I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (2003). Another Hodges film about British hoods that was elevated by Owen's presence. In terms of plot, though, it borrowed rather heavily from Hodges's 1971 movie Get Carter, a classic of the genre and one of the most lean, vicious thrillers ever made.
- King Arthur (2004). A big-budget effort at mythical revisionism that was an intermittently interesting mess, but still a mess. Looking a bit silly as in the title role of Roman-cavalryman-turned-
- Closer (2004). Owen appeared in the original play back in 1997, before Hollywood came knocking, which may be one reason he was so very, very good in a movie that was truly bad.
- Sin City (2005). Like King Arthur, another role that didn't really suit the talents of Owen, who burns a good deal cooler than Frank Miller's homicidal antiheroes. (It didn't help that he got the weakest of the three plotlines.)
- Derailed (2005). Though it thankfully failed to live up to the promise of its title with regard to Owen's career (and that of costar Jennifer Aniston), it took its best shot. A true stinker, for completists only.
- The Pink Panther (2006). Owen's cameo as Agent 006 in this witless act of cinematic vandalism is the closest he's likely ever to come to playing James Bond, a fact that is considerably less sad now that we've seen what Daniel Craig is capable of.
- Inside Man (2006). Here was a role better-suited to Owen: the cool, methodical bank robber more than happy to let his deeds speak for him. That his cat-and-mouse interplay took place with an equally suave Denzel Washington was an added delight.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.