Written and directed by
Filmic visions of the future have a habit of turning familiar places into wild, unrecognisable landscapes. Directors from Fritz Lang on have found the urge to dress the future in fantasy fetish wear irresistible. Cities teem with flying cars, their drivers wearing ludicrous all in one suits that can only have been designed by men – you try going for a pee in one.
For that reason alone Alfonso (Y Tu Mama Tambien) Cuarn’s chilling realisation of P D James’s 1993 novel Children of Men is to be commended. Under his direction, London in 2027 is recognisable as the shambling city so many of us cut through on our daily commute. The streets are dirty, the roads jammed, the local Starbuck’s crowded with sour-faced office workers, even the buses are the same (though there is one improvement: bendy buses appear to have disappeared).
But there is one fatal difference: across the world women have become infertile and within 100 years the human race will be extinct. Without children, society has lost hope, direction and its soul. Britain has become a fortress, importing immigrant labourers, then booting them out to gulag-like detention centres as soon as they are too old to work.
There are some sinister similarities: the centralised, miltaristic government is under siege from terrorists, fighting an ideological war based as much on faith – a belief in the redemptive power of the never defined “Human Project” – as political ambition. The public is encouraged to shop suspicious characters, by a media that pumps out propaganda.
Instead of this big picture Cuarn focuses on Clive Owen’s Theo, a disillusioned activist reinvigorated by the reappearance of his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), who enlists his help to smuggle out Kee (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a miraculous woman: she is the first to get pregnant in 18 years.
What follows is a classic road trip, albeit shot with Cuarn’s usual distempered eye. Kee and Theo are caught between struggling ideologies, which happily sacrifice individuals to their “bigger cause”, much the same as young men on both sides of the War on Terror are sacrificed as soldiers and suicide bombers. Owen’s and Ejiofor’s central performances are nicely nuanced, souring any hint of sugar with ironical one liners that stop their relationship from plunging into the formulaic.
By focusing on their smaller story, Cuarn leaves the audience to fill in the blanks in the narrative. Why are women infertile? Who is in power? What happened to the rest of the world? And who are the warring factions? is never explained. But it doesn’t matter, because the personal narrative Owen and Ejiofor, aided by an on-form Michael Caine as ageing hippie Jasper, hammers home what happens when we fail to act against governments’ corrupt decisions, whether in bombed out Iraq or the refugee camps of Darfur.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, especially a blood spattered lens for the single track shot in the final dnouement, takes cinema vriti to new heights, as does Cuarn’s use of long takes that have the audience following, news footage style, as bombs blast and bullets fly. Sadly, this is also the weakest section of the film when Cuarn’s message is in danger of tumbling into glib clich as solders and terrorists stand in awed silenced at the sound of a wailing baby.
But it is a small gripe about a film that offers a terrifying vision of the future not least because it bears so close a resemblance to the present. That said, in Children of Men Cuarn also offers us a choice: heed the warnings heard today, about war, warming and nationalism, and the future need not be so bleak.