Children of Men
a Novel by P.D. James
Illustrated by Kent Williams
"Children of Men"
It's 2027, England. An unforeseen, uncontrollable calamity has befallen mankind in the form of universal human sterility. For reasons scientifically unaccountable, sperm count has gone missing. And the loss of a future for humanity turns civil society into a setting for despotic rule, abandonment of human values, anarchy and uprisings.
It's grey, it's cold, and terrorist bombs going off leave your ears ringing for days, as it does to Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a modest man living as ordered a life as he can. The only things that set him apart is his inclination to hang on to his values and his friendship with a high governmental official.
The novel on which the film is based starts... "Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being to be born on earth was killed in a pub brawl..." Headline news. The death of the youngest person alive, presumably the one who would have outlived all others, is but one life. But it's headline news because the end of human life has just gotten closer.
In this manic vision of despair by noteworthy British mystery novelist P.D. James on a particularly bad day and in a yanking departure from her mannered Adam Dalgliesh territory, England is under the oppressive rule of the "Warden." Group suicide is encouraged as a means of pruning the population of the sick and infirm. Order is falling apart at the seams, forms of slavery are accepted and underground resistance cells are employing standard techniques of terrorism.
When Theo is overpowered on the street one day, hauled into a van, hooded and whisked to a hideout, a woman's voice of leadership limits the abuse some of the men are ready to inflict on the defenseless man. It's really just a business meeting called by Theo's old flame Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore), now head of "Fish," one of those resistance organizations, who needs a favor. Ignoring the awkwardness of the situation, she asks Theo to help the cause by getting a transit pass for a woman.
Some niggling and arousals of old feelings leads Theo to call in a favor from old pal Nigel (Danny Huston), his buddy in the government hierarchy. Nigel pulls it off but the pass comes with the stipulation that Theo accompany the woman. She is finally revealed as Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), black and extremely suspicious of Theo. Until, that is, the gang comes under attack while preparing for the journey. By now, Kee sees that her best chance of getting out of Dodge is to put her trust in Theo and reveal to him why her flight is so urgent.
The storytelling and filmmaking technique bringing us to this moment is handled in a conventional manner that doesn't avoid obvious symbolism and cliche', with the few stretches of logic. The effort is to construct a passable credibility for a world where the keys to society are getting into the hands of the crazed and criminally malignant. It comes with significant superficiality. The relationship between Theo and Julian never does rise to convincing or, even, interesting, and mostly because it's not the journey we're being taken on. All this retro karma doesn't amount to a romance or a buddy picture. Those elements function as story movers, but it's only what happens now that supplies the traction with our sympathies and, a cinephile might say, "awe." The trip through the city is one of the more astounding pieces of naturalistic action filmmaking seen this year.
Owen is solidly companionable throughout, in his deep, righteous, physically resourceful and masculine way. We meet Theo's anchor of safety in Jasper Palmer (Michael Caine), a classic long-miened hippy laying low in a well hidden forest enclave. He and his spread fulfill a story function also, with a colorful throwback character, but if you wait for something original in it beyond a little old-timey banter between friends, you might forget what movie you're in.
Chiwetel Ojiofor is intense as Luke, the rebel leader; and Peter Mullan is trickily original as he turns his Syd, a government guard who sees the bigger picture, into something stylistic and dramatically memorable. Claire-Hope Ashitey as Kee delivers a stream of personality sparks as the fleeing woman of spunk and determination, standing up against the forces of extinction.
But, it's only when our pair of fleers take off that the picture does, as well. It's in this flight to safe harbor through the gauntlet of a society gone berserk that screenwriter-director Alfonso Cuaron ("Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban") and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki ("The New World") take matters into the remarkable. He augments it with music of comparable worth, from the Rolling Stones and Deep Purple to the classical realm and excerpts from Handel, Mahler and Penderecki.
Hand held camera, natural light, action scenes with all the immediacy of guided improvisation and a freak show of mad-house rebellion make for a level of energy and tension rarely seen and increasingly spectacular. Terry Gilliam meets a "Clockwork Orange." The last thing I can remember with this kind of natural look and pacing was 1984's "The Killing Fields" for which cinematographer Chris Menges received a well deserved Academy Award. This, however, is an excellence of its own. For action fans, sci-fi fans, P.D. James and Clive Owens fans, a must-see.
~~ Jules Brenner