Based on the novel by P.D. James, Children of Men takes place in London in the not-too-distant future, in which the world is infertile, the youngest human on the planet has just died, all immigrants are locked-up without question and terrorist attacks are all too frequent. As society breaks down, government pen-pusher Theo Faron’s (Clive Owen) only refuge is the countryside home of old friend Jasper (Michael Caine). But when his ex-wife, and activist group leader, Julian (Julianne Moore) turns up seeking his assistance to ensure safe passage for refugee Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), the importance of the mission is matched only by the danger they risk in achieving it.
While dystopian visions of the future appear on the silver screen with seemingly the same frequency as computer-generated family films with wise-cracking animals, director Alfonso Cuarón’s take on anarchy in the UK is perhaps the most realistically realised for many a moon. Perhaps it’s different for someone who has never lived in London, but it doesn’t take too great a stretch of the imagination to believe in what Cuarón and his skilled production team have created. London may very well look as it does here in 20 years time – assuming the problems affecting mankind are the same, of course.
Indeed, as compelling and involving as the story is (and it most certainly is), the technical achievements are what truly stand out. In particular, two sequences conducted in one long extended take each are breath-taking in their execution – and I’m not talking simple dialogue scenes, but full-blown action set-pieces. And the wonderful cinematography creates a picture of Britain that hasn’t looked so beautifully bleak since Witchfinder General. When Children of Men essentially steps-up into chase film mode, the gritty handheld camerawork matches the frenetic panic of the pursuit, generating moments of visceral intensity akin to that of a war documentary.
Children of Men has been unfairly criticised in some quarters for its lack of exposition and explanation, but that’s what made it so refreshing. Do we really need everyone’s backstory? Do we really need a full historical explanation of how Britain came to be this way or the exact step-by-step motives of all the characters? Do we need people saying “Do you realise how important this is?” every five minutes? No – the audience is clever enough to fill in the gaps for themselves. A trickle of details gives the impression of a richer world in which the story is set (the do-it-yourself suicide kit Quietus and Theo’s natty old London 2012 jumper are particularly vivid examples) and the significance of what’s at stake is clear to all concerned.
The acting is of a uniformly high standard, Owen’s ex-radical turned world-weary bureaucrat turned defender of the future is truly believable and newcomer Ashitey is simply wonderful. Plus, there is fine support from Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Peter Mullan. All contribute to a film that packs a powerful emotional punch, by turns thrilling but also humourous (indeed, one of my favourite scenes jokes about the potentially Messianic overtones of the situation that this film does well to avoid dwelling on – although being released in the US on Christmas Day probably doesn’t help). By the time Jarvis Cocker’s Running the World plays over the credits, Children of Men had earned its place as my favourite film of the year thus far…and as I’ll probably only get a chance to see one more new release before 2007 begins, it’ll probably stay that way (bring on Casino Royale)!