Saturday, December 30, 2006

"Children of Men" is the best film of the year

The future arrives with a bang in Children of Men.

Sorry, no clever headline this time - just the facts, ma'am. Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men is the must-see film of the season - an old-fashioned "dystopian" metaphor for the present that's so pointed in its political reference that its studio (Universal) dumped it on the Christmas market like an unpromoted lump of coal - apparently in the hope it would sink unnoticed. Instead, critics have given it rapturous reviews - yet it's not in Oscar contention, or even, it seems, on the short list of the New York Film Critics' Circle. Which leads to the inevitable question - are we so politically nervous today that we've completely lost our pop-cultural minds? Children of Men not only functions as an eloquent political metaphor, it's also the most gripping (if grim) pop movie made this year, and probably since The Lord of the Rings. It's the movie War of the Worlds wanted to be - or to be accurate, the movie War of the Worlds AND Munich wanted to be; so add to the film's laurels the fact that it's almost a primer on how to build a "wild ride" that can still connect with our hearts and minds.

What's striking, in fact, is how easily Cuarón balances these two aims; Children of Men is both thrilling in its action sequences and deeply disturbing in its political implications - in fact, I can think of few sequences that better shame our paranoid security apparatus than the horrific scene in which the only pregnant woman in the world finds herself in labor in a refugee camp. It is, in its extreme way, only a reminder of the common humanity that our society, in its current wildly polarized state, has forgotten - but then this is Mr. Cuarón's theme in a nutshell, which he never underlines but instead allows to seep into our consciousness.

He approaches his concerns in the time-honored way of many a Star Trek episode - by dressing up our current quandaries in a sci-fi disguise (freely adapted from a P.D. James novel). Children of Men opens in London in 2027, when the world is reeling from a fertility crisis: no woman has given birth in eighteen years (this isn't much of a fictional stretch; fertility rates have been falling for years). What's worse, as the resulting hopelessness sank in, the planet went mad; in a wild montage of riots and mushroom clouds, we learn that "the world has collapsed," and that "only Britain soldiers on." It soldiers on, all right - with gonzo commandos in riot gear, all viciously cleansing their blessed plot of the refugees pouring onto its shores.

Enter Theo (Clive Owen), a jaded yuppie functionary with a few radical friends who's approached by an old flame, Julian (Julianne Moore) to procure papers for someone seeking safe transit out of the country. The "friend," however, turns out to be the rather baldly-named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey),the first pregnant woman in a generation - what's more, Kee is a black refugee, who's desperately trying to flee Britain and reach the waiting arms of a benevolent organization called (balder still) "The Human Project." Needless to say, the plot immediately thickens, with Julian shot in a roadside ambush and Kee's shaggy, leftist protectors turning treacherous (they want her baby as an emblem of their uprising). Soon Theo finds himself cast by circumstance as Kee's lone protector - and this black Mary and her white Joseph set off alone on a perilous search for safe haven.

Clive Owen and Claire-Hope Ashitey find there's no room at the inn.

Clearly, Cuarón has crossed the Nativity story with an equally well-worn plotline (cynical loner turns protector of the innocent); what's striking is how he maintains his political balance while charging along it. And charge he does: often shot in long, continuous takes worthy of Kubrick, or even Sokurov, Children of Men keeps its low-tech chases stunningly immediate. As a matter of fact, the movie's cut-free, handheld style is like an object lesson in conjuring audience identification: other pop movies fracture their violence into kaleidoscopes which inherently distance the viewer (simply scanning the carnage becomes a proxy for control). Cuarón, by contrast, doesn't slice or dice his violence, and his brilliant cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, has devised ingenious ways to follow the action relentlessly - thus the violence is being done to us, with a moral weight we cannot ignore.

Given the intensity of its cinematography, the film's political subtlety is even more striking (and worthy of its allusive subtext - references to Michael Haneke, Jean-Luc Godard, Lindsay Anderson, and Gaspar Noé flash by). Both right and left are the object of excoriating critique: in Children of Men, the right offers a sterile market paradise fenced in by fascism, while the left counters with a funky, self-reliant community that easily fragments into sectarian violence. Cuarón's sympathies are clearly left-of-center; his movie's true hero, Jasper (Michael Caine) is an aging, stoned cartoonist who lives in a retreat seemingly torn from the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog; but he has the sense to perceive our current situation requires what people used to longingly call a Third Way.

Needless to say, Cuarón and his squad of screenwriters never articulate what that third way might be, or what, exactly, "The Human Project" is all about - but if he had, Children of Men would have turned hopelessly didactic. As it is, it's a thrillingly open-ended parable, and one that, in its most touching moments, makes what amounts to a case for religion in its pure sense: when Kee's infant is finally revealed, for a moment, the battle around her goes quiet - some of the combatants even fall to their knees. Somewhere, somehow, Children of Men suggests, the sacred can still be reborn.

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