Children of Men
Mexican director, Alfonso Cuarón once again proves his dexterity at turning his hand to different genres and subjects with this thrilling adaptation of a PD James novel, which is his first film since directing ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ and his first screenwriting credit since his 2001 arthouse hit ‘Y Tu Mamá También’. Set in Britain in 2027, it’s a sort of sci-fi movie, but it’s the film’s nervous and energetic verité style, and creepy familiarity – not any wild vision of the future – that make it so involving. It helps, too, that Cuarón doesn’t allow the writing or the performances, most notably from Clive Owen and Michael Caine, to sink amid the film’s futuristic detail and pointed ideological concerns.
‘Children of Men’ is a clever and credible vision of London in the near future – a violent, paranoid, claustrophobic time when Britain is the only surviving nation, and a fertility crisis means that no babies have been born for 18 years. The Department of Homeland Security has ordered a militarised police to arrest all illegal immigrants and dispatch them to a fortified compound at Bexhill-on-Sea. Meanwhile, a rebel outfit of guerrilla refugees (or ‘fugees’) known as The Fish loom threateningly in the background, fighting for the rights of illegal immigrants and determined to cause major unrest. Cuarón’s smart trick is not to explain too much. Instead, he leaps straight in to his story, which is a good old-fashioned chase yarn that’s gilded with some unobtrusive and cheeky social commentary.
It’s civil servant Theo (Owen) – hapless innocent, reluctant hero and middling everyman – versus a miserable world in which his activist ex Julian (Julianne Moore) continues to take a political stand that he’s long since abandoned. It helps that Cuarón’s prognosis of the future is gripping from the off. Theo (wearing a faded ‘London 2012’ sweater) is buying a coffee on Fleet Street when he notices a news report on TV. The newsreader (a voice recognisable from television today) announces that the world’s youngest person, 18-year-old Diego, has died in a street brawl. It’s major news. The public weep. Theo takes a day off. And it’s no leap of the imagination to connect the reaction to Diego’s death with the death of Diana in 1997. It’s a moment that’s symbolic of Cuarón’s film: the future is not another planet, but a familiar version of our own.
The focus on migrancy and terrorism has an uneasy potency (not least when a bomb blows up Starbucks), and signals Cuarón’s determination to avoid distancing sci-fi tropes. It’s a film that could have been ridiculous. When Theo finds himself unwitting guardian to the only pregnant woman on earth (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a Messianic tone threatens to infect the film, but Cuarón backs off from stressing the Biblical overtones of James’s tale; at one point, he pointedly pulls the needle off a solemn John Tavener number and returns to the din of conflict as immigrants battle it out amid Bexhill’s ruins.In Cuarón’s hands, this film emerges as quite an achievement, both technically (look out for the impressive one-shot take that graces a battle scene late on; Cuarón resists the cut throughout) and dramatically (even Caine is amusing as Theo’s old mate Jasper, a cardigan-wearing, pot-smoking old sage).
It’s the director’s boldness that makes it work. He doesn’t bother with easy explanations, choosing instead to plunge straight into the action, shooting in a frenzied, documentary style (always handheld) and employing only the most necessary of special effects. His London is ours. The same red buses crawl the streets, only they’re older and more tatty. It rains incessantly and, though the city’s grey buildings are now adorned with moving-image advertising, the majority of our cityscape endures, from Brick Lane to the gloomy fly-overs of the East End. There’s fun to be had from all this – zebras roam St James’s Park and Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ now hangs in a (finally!) refurbished Battersea Power Station. But this is no joke: this is as real and as provocative as the future gets on screen. Dave Calhoun
Source : Time Out London Issue 1883: September 20-27 2006
The guardian of a labyrinth tells a young girl that she is the long lost princess of a magical kingdom and sets her three dangerous tasks that she must complete in order to achieve her destiny.
A girl on the cusp of adolescence is inducted into a threatening fantasy world where she discovers her own power. It’s a familiar, even archetypal story well suited to the dreamlike parallel reality of cinema: Alice, Wendy and Dorothy found their ways on screen and have been joined by the young heroines of ‘Labyrinth’, ‘Spirited Away’ and ‘Mirrormask’, to name just a few.
Pan’s Labyrinth’ is another version of the tale, but an unusual one in that it isn’t suitable for children. Not only is it replete with violence visited on the body, but its lessons – in the inadequacy of fantasy as a countermeasure to repression – might have sensitive youngsters chucking in the towel. As in ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ and a prospective new project, ‘3993’, Guillermo del Toro (who is Mexican) arranges his supernatural drama against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War.
The setting is 1944, so the conflict proper is over, but skirmishes continue between anti-fascist guerrillas and forces under the command of sadistic, narcissistic Captain Vidal (Sergi López) – or ‘father’, as young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is instructed to address him when she arrives at his forest base with her pregnant, ailing mother (Ariadna Gil), Vidal’s new bride. The maid, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), is friendly and in some ways a mirror character for Ofelia, but the girl is basically alone – until a large cricket transforms into a fairy and leads her to a crumbling stone maze in the grounds, where an ageing faun greets her as a lost princess, pending her completion of certain tasks…It’s no coincidence that the fairy appears after the double-killing that establishes this fable isn’t kids’ stuff, or that the jeopardy of Ofelia’s challenges pales in comparison to real-world struggles.
Reality increasingly dominates the story; in fact, the faun’s realm can seem merely the stage for a series of set-pieces whose grotesque and detailed design impresses more than any sense of momentum or high stakes. Yet as escapist fantasies go, this supernatural is markedly muddy – both literally, as when Ofelia ventures into the belly of a great tree, and in the general creepiness that marks even those ostensibly sympathetic to her, like the faun, with its unnerving habit of appearing in her bedroom.
The labyrinth has echoes of authentic atrocity: a pile of children’s shoes lies ominously near the banqueting table of a bald-bodied, blank-faced baby-eater. At least as evident, though, is del Toro’s own immersion in fantasy and horror cinema, with nods to ‘Don’t Look Now’, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘The Shining’ among others (not to mention Goya and ‘The Spirit of the Beehive’). It’s as a filmmaker, rather than storyteller, that del Toro is most successful here: a disjunction remains between the story’s childlike form and its gruesome execution, but few directors are so adept at conveying both the uncanny in the real and the recognisable in the fantastic.Ben Walters
Source : Time Out London Issue 1892: November 21-28 2006