Based on the novel by P.D. James, director and co-writer Alfonso Cuarón’s futuristic adventure derives its power from a premise as potent and primal as they come. Early in the 21st century, women are, suddenly and inexplicably, rendered infertile. No one knows why; reasons ranging from environmental pollution and genetic testing are cited as possible culprits. That’s neither nor there, however, because both mankind and civilization are rapidly unraveling. The world that Children of Men’s hero, Theodore Faron (Clive Owen), an erstwhile social activist, inhabits is riddled with political instability, terrorism, riots, economic crises and nuclear conflagrations. Britain has become a police state, violently quashing all discontent. Because of large-scale illegal immigration into Britain from less stable parts of the world, the country has adopted a violent policy against it. Everywhere we see police rounding up migrants into buses, hauling them off into Guantanamo-like detention camps. They’re ruthless in how they treat citizens who, in turn, have become disaffected, or else taken up arms in their struggle against the system. Terrorism and persecution widespread. The use of legalized over-the-counter euthanasia drugs is encouraged for all.
So it’s no surprise that when Baby Diego dies, everyone everywhere is sent into a grief-stricken tailspin. Reputedly the youngest man on Earth, Baby Diego is killed in a violent incident that characterizes the tenor of the times. The event underscores the fragility of the fate of our species, a twist of the proverbial knife already embedded in our backs. But Faron’s already inside his own grief vortex; twenty years ago, right around the time when pregnancy rates worldwide were dropping, he and his former wife Julian (Julianne Moore) laid to rest their own child. It was, in a way, the end of both their lives.
Those pieces in place, Cuarón shunts into action mode, “chase picture” mode to be exact, after Julian pays the disaffected Faron a surprise visit. She tells him about Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a teenage girl who miraculously happens to be pregnant, and charges him with the task of transporting Kee and her nurse, Miriam (Pam Ferris), to the coast where they can be delivered into the hands of a benevolent organization called the Human Project. The existence of the Human Project is itself open to question, a rumor more than a fact, but it’s a chance Faron decides is worth taking; the world’s too dangerous to entrust with anything this precious. Faron’s not kidding either, for no sooner have they set out on the road than the group is set upon by sectarians determined to make Kee’s soon-to-be-born baby the poster child for their revolution.
Children of Men exudes an aura of effortlessness in how it lays out the particulars of its complex social and political realities. The pandemonium that wracks this future-world feels both logical and palpable; without that crucial sense of plausibility, Cuarón and company’s script would’ve been lost at sea. The same can be said of Cuarón’s assuredly brilliant direction, at much at ease with developing a range of absorbing characters as with staging one riveting action set piece after another. Owen creates the kind of hero you can’t help but immediately sympathize with and root for: Faron is a bedraggled Everyman, he has no power, no authority, and he wouldn’t know how to use a firearm if he found one in his hands. But, wounded by the loss of his own child, he’s the heart and soul of the picture, driven solely by his desire to save. And not just Owen; Children of Men is marked by high caliber performances throughout, particularly from Ferris, whose Miriam is Kee’s only protection and professional support; from Chiwetel Ejiofor whose militant leader Luke’s yearning for revolution becomes wrongly enmeshed with his desire to co-opt Kee’s child; from Ashitey whose Kee’s vulnerability is shielded only by her maternal pluckiness; and from the ever-watchable Michael Caine as a pot-smoking, lank-haired eccentric who’s the closest thing Faron has to a guide and benefactor.
Through a series of escapes and captures, Faron, Kee and Miriam manage to flee Luke and his organization only to wind up in a Homeland Security detention camp. In depicting their arrival at the camp, Cuarón’s acutely evokes, without exploiting, our collective incredulity for places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Cuarón’s sequence is frightening and bears the stamp of truth for anyone who’s seen images in the news of hooded prisoners, Gestapo-like guards, and unwholesome, barbed-wire ringed compounds. It’s at the camp that Cuarón’s direction (and his picture) gathers steam. He begins with an excruciatingly suspenseful sequence in which Faron tries to find Kee — in the final pangs of labor — a safe corner in these pellmell surroundings where she can give birth, and builds to a bravura climax as Faron must infiltrate a war zone to fetch Kee and her newborn. Cuarón’s courage and craftsmanship — together with the skills of his superb cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki — prove themselves in a shattering single-take sequence in which a very simple but enormously effective juxtaposition is established between the roar of gunfire against the crying of an infant as Faron tries to sneak mother and child out of a besieged building. A more mind-blowing display of technical virtuosity in tandem with emotional power hasn’t been burned into celluloid since the opening of Saving Private Ryan. At one point in Children of Men, Miriam comments how the voices of children are what keep the world from tipping into self-destruction. That sentiment is borne out precisely and perfectly in Cuarón’s final scenes.
All that keeps Children of Men from achieving masterpiece status is a greater sense of Faron himself. The script never delves deeply enough into Faron’s character; we know that he’s a burned-out shell of a man, haunted by feelings of fatelessness, but, of Faron’s inner life, we glean very little. Rather, he is a flat character who goes from one challenge to the next, as demanded by the story and with an attitude that remains the same whether he’s fetching a cup of coffee or a baby from a burning building. Faron should have been Cuarón’s bid to assert his personality over this material, an opportunity to provide his “spin” on the terrible state of the world (real and allegorical) and perhaps his own world-view as an artist. Children of Men gives us Cuarón the prodigal filmmaker, notching another success in a long string of them, though it comes frustratingly close to giving us Cuarón, the newly minted auteur.
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby
Cast: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, Danny Huston, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Peter Mullan, Pam Ferris, Michael Caine