Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Two


#2 — Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
“Every edit is a lie.” That assertion is famously credited to filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. I referenced that the first time I wrote about Children on Men, but I can’t resist returning to it. The most famous portions of Alfonso Cuaron’s film, the sequences that even those who don’t quite understand the devotion other movie-lovers feel for it, involve extended single takes of intricate action set pieces. The camera doesn’t blink as the passengers in car traveling down a rural road are suddenly halted by a flaming vehicle that careens into their path and then accosted by raging subversives pouring out of the woods. It’s similarly unflinching as a man scuttles furiously through ravaged city streets that has been transformed into a war zone, hunkering behind urban debris and racing from point to point as bullets fly and bombs explode. This isn’t just an instance of stunt filmmaking, a cheeky but empty display of directorial cleverness. Cuaron’s choice is purposeful, placing us directly within these fraught situations, heightening the tension by denying us the soothing safety of an edit, a reminder through the most commonplace tool of cinema that was are simply watching a movie. Instead, Cuaron wants us to feel every harrowing moment of being in that car, fully comprehend the difficulty of crossing that battle-battered street, and, when he employs the technique in a quieter moment, the way past heartbreak can reach out and enfold a person anew when they overhear a certain conversation in the next room. In every instance, these scenes are marvels of construction. Cuaron is not merely flinging his camera around, counting our comfort with documentary-styled verite to compensate for artlessness. The images are carefully considered, the camera capturing what it needs to when it needs to. Cuaron mimics the urgency and unpredictability of life, but never abdicates the responsibilities of cinematic storytelling.

He’s got quite a story to tell, after all, and vitally important points to make. Children of Men is adapted, reportedly rather loosely, from a P.D. James novel. Multiple screenwriters are credited, but Cuaron insists that the finished version is entirely the handiwork of himself, Timothy J. Sexton and, though uncredited, star Clive Owen. Set approximately two decades in the future, the film posits a world that’s developed in the wake of unexplained global infertility. There are no children. At the film’s beginning, news reports announce the death of “the world’s youngest person,” an eighteen-year-old male. This context shades the ugly fraying of society itself. England is a dystopian police state where immigrants are thrown into cages like brutalized cattle, and billboards demanding compliance are everywhere. It is a culture helplessly eroding away, by definition operating under a deadline. With no pending generations to carry our world forward, humanity is simply circling the drain. This hopelessly permeates the landscape.

And it has left the protagonist, played by Clive Owen, as a member of the walking wounded, dragging his damaged idealism behind him like chunks of unidentifiable metal scraping the roadway from the undercarriage of a clunker that defies expectation every time turning the ignition actually starts it. It’s to Owen’s credit that he remains very true to the place where his character begins. The usual progression in such a film centers around the rediscovery of hope and heroism, but Owen is more subtle than that. Once he encounters a woman who carries within her the first possibility of an actual future for the human race, he steps up as her guardian and her mentor. It’s less than he’s transformed by this experience than he discovers some vestiges of his former self, just enough to carry his charge forward, getting her to a place of safety at the most critical time. He doesn’t emerge from his own personal abyss, but he does look above and see glimmers of light for the first time in a long while, and that itself, thanks largely to Owen’s skillful performance, feels triumphant.

While there is hope interlaced into the story, Cuaron’s vision is bleak, largely because his broken future looks so familiar. The catalyst in the film is an unthinkable, almost fantastic turn of genetic events, but the gray, devastated vistas and social unrest on display feels frightfully close. No matter how it’s reached in the film, it’s all too easy to envision a few dominoes falling the right way in our current unhappy society to lead us to the place on the film, and suddenly watching the screen is a little like looking out the window. It’s the plausibility of it all that makes Cuaron’s picture engrossing. It’s enough to make you want to find your own little household bunker in the woods, like the one that Michael Caine’s aging hippie character resides in, living out your days hiding from the rest of humanity, listening to old rock records and growing fruit-flavored psychoactive herbs by lamplight.

Caine is marvelous in his role, just one of a collection of actors matching Owen’s excellence in the supporting roles. Julianne Moore brings edged intensity as he ex-wife of Owen’s character. She’s one of the leaders of the underground, anti-government movement, and wears the focus and certainty of that role. And as the woman at the center of the film, the one who needs defending and transport, Clare-Hope Ashitey balances the wariness of someone inadvertently drawn into grand, world-changing situations with a welcome pragmatism, the grounded nature of someone who was raised in a place and time where simply being a survivor was the most valued and daring aspiration one could have.

Children of Men is a thrilling twirl of cynicism and hope, inevitable decline and the possibility of building something better. Cuaron manages to acknowledge the worst instincts of people and still hold out some shred of belief that we can collectively rise above it, that we can reach that ship christened Tomorrow and prove ourselves worthy carriers of the great potential lurking deep within our self-destructive species. It’s not a treatise, though. It doesn’t pound drums or delivering ominous warnings with the condescending directness of a self-satisfied lecture. First and foremost it is moving drama, rich with insight and charm, delivered in a master class of realizing the full potential of every technical advantage of modern filmmaking.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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