Children of Men (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón's adaptation of the P.D. James novel, takes a look at England in an apocalyptic near-future, when standards of law and order have broken down and the country is ruled by a fascist dictator. The movie is set in 2027 - a mere 21 years in the future - but there's a simple explanation for how the world got from where it is today to where it is in the film: the human race has become sterile. Beginning around 2009, women became unable to have babies. Now, the species is aging and dying. In less than 100 years, there will be no trace of man left on the planet. Children of Men isn't interested in dissecting the reasons for the situation, but in exploring the societal ramifications of it. The movie could be classified as science fiction, but its real interest is in examining how different people react to the impending end of everything, and how one ray of hope becomes a tool used for a power-grab.

Although the premise, character names, and some of the plot points remain the same, the movie Children of Men is radically different from the novel upon which it is based. The script underwent several revisions, and each one took it further from the source material. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. P.D. James is among today's elite mystery writers; The Children of Men, which falls outside of her usual genre, may be her weakest book. It contains evocative passages and some interesting and powerful ideas, but it often reads too much like an erudite potboiler. In developing the story for the screen, Cuarón has changed things around to make it more cinematic.

Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is at the center of a maelstrom that is about to erupt between government forces and a loosely organized group of rebels. He is recruited by an ex-lover, Julian (Julianne Moore), with whom he split 20 years ago after the death of their child. Theo is a broken-down loser, but his perspective on life changes when he meets Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a pregnant young woman. Julian's goal is to hide Kee until she can be spirited out of England to a place of safety run by a mysterious group called "The Human Project." (Agurably the silliest and most contrived conceit in the movie.) Others have different ideas, viewing Kee's baby as a crucial tool for establishing power (the rebels) or maintaining it (the government). Julian's idealism has no place in their worldview. Ultimately, the responsibility to protect Kee falls to Theo, and he has a persistent and dangerous adversary in Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofore), the rebel leader. His lone allies are a midwife, Miriam (Pam Ferris), and an aging hippie (Michael Caine).

Some will see Children of Men as an allegory, but I view it more as a cautionary tale. Points are made about assisted suicide and the dangers of immigration control, but these are tangential to the main story. The strength of Cuarón's vision is the way he represents the rebels as being equally as rapacious and amoral as the government. They may be fighting a totalitarian regime, but they are in no way depicted as being "the good guys." Their goal seems to be less freedom for the masses than power for themselves. There's an ethical quagmire here that Cuarón forces many of the characters to navigate.

The tone of the movie is bleak - perhaps even bleaker than that of the book. (The novel contains a love story to lighten things that is absent from the movie.) 2027 England is a depressing, crumbling place. Man, in his last years, is shown to be reverting to animal form as anarchy spreads. How much longer before the concept of government will have no meaning? How much longer before basic services, such as electricity and running water, will no longer be possible? Children of Men provides us with a glimpse of the possible beginning of the collapse. It's a unique view of the end of the world - one that comes not through war, famine, or disease, but from the human race's inability to reproduce. (Note: Cuarón, like James, does not assign blame for the sterility. It's scientifically inexplicable - an act of fate or God.)

The camerawork, by Emmanuel Lubezki, is remarkable: long, unbroken shots and images that make London look as it did in the years after World War II. The film is the anti-MTV, with edits used sparingly. There's an amazing scene in a car that lasts nearly five minutes without a cut, and it's one of several with similar lengths. The color palette is desaturated, with the result favoring grays over other hues. This is a bleak future and Cuarón intends to emphasize that. Children of Men is uncompromising in the way it paints a world that none of us would want to live in.

A deliberately low-key cast was chosen - actors picked more for their ability to inhabit characters than appear attractive on the marquee. Clive Owen, who can be a chameleon, portrays Theo as a flawed, reluctant hero. Part of him is searching for solace from the two decades-old death of his toddler son, and he finds it in becoming Kee's protector. (This theme makes more sense in the book, in which Theo was inadvertently responsible for the child's death. In the movie, the cause was influenza.) Michael Caine and Julianne Moore don't have large roles, but they add energy to the proceedings. (Theo is not the most lively of protagonists.) The underrated Chiwetel Ejiofore plays the conflicted rebel leader. Peter Mullan has a scene-stealing performance as an unbalanced military man. And Claire-Hope Ashitey, in her first major role, exhibits strength and determination - two qualities necessary from the possible mother of a new human race.

Often with movies that are adapted from books, it's easy to assess whether the cinematic version is superior or inferior to the written one. In the case of Children of Men, the divergence of material is so great that such a simple determination cannot be made. Cuarón's interpretation, inspired more than based on James' novel, takes on a life of its own. Stripped bare, this is essentially a chase movie (with Theo spending more than half of the movie with Kee, keeping her out of the hands of one group or another), but the setting, context, and thematic backbone make it compelling. Although I reject the allegory label in this case, Children of Men has a few things to say about the human condition. Although imperfect, it's engaging, thought-provoking stuff.

Children of Men (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 2006-12-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1