December 30, 2006

MOVIES: Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)

It's 2027, and humanity has become infertile. The last child -- "Baby Diego" -- was born 18 years ago, and the world is in mourning over his recent murder; we see enormous collections of bouquets, reminiscent of London's mourning of Princess Diana. Most of the world has fallen into chaos -- a brief reference to the "Siege of Seattle," now in its third year, opens the movie -- and "only England soldiers on," say the propaganda posters. Even England, though, is barely clinging to civility, and that only through a government crackdown on every facet of life, most notably a total ban on immigration.

Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is a minor bureaucrat in that government, and has largely numbed himself to the bleakness around him. He has only one real friend, the aging pothead Jasper (a light and joyful performance from Michael Caine), who lives in seclusion with his disabled wife, a victim of unspecified government torture.

There are groups working in opposition to the government; Theo is kidnapped by one such group, the Fishes, and learns that this cell is headed by his ex-wife, Julian (Julianne Moore), who asks him to arrange transport papers for Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey, in an understated performance of quiet strength), an illegal immigrant who needs to reach the coast. But no one's agenda is what it seems, and Theo soon finds himself fleeing with Kee, unable to trust the government or the Fishes, and unsure if salvation is to be found anywhere.

Cuaron has created a richly detailed world, in which animals have become child substitutes to an even greater extent than they occasionally are in our own world; hardly a scene goes by without the presence of a dog or a cat (all of which seem to be drawn to Theo for some reason). There is blessedly little time spent discussing why humanity has become infertile, or how the situation might be reversed; Cuaron is much more concerned with the impact of such a change.

The look of the movie is marvelous; it's a bleak and dingy England, covered in rubble and graffiti ("Last one to die, turn out the lights"). Emmanuel Lubezki's photography is beautifully done, particularly in two spectacular set pieces filmed in single shots, one from inside a moving car -- a special rig was devised to give the camera so much mobility -- and a hellish escape through a prison camp for illegal immigrants.

In addition to the lovely work from Caine and Ashitey, there are very good supporting turns from Chiwetel Ejiofor as one of the Fishes' leaders, Peter Mullen as a none-too-stable prison guard, and Pam Ferris as the one Fish who can be relied on. And as Theo, Clive Owen is ideal, a stoic man who finds that hope may not have entirely died in him after all.

A very fine movie, highly recommended.

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