Clive Owen’s output has been patchy at best over the years, and personally it’s hard for me to grasp that Children of Men is as good as it is with him as the protagonist. I say this because it was released just a year after the woefully mediocre Derailed (2005), and three years before we were subjected to Duplicity (2009), which felt like a slightly insipid and very disappointing Mr. & Mrs. Smith. However, in Children of Men I believe in everything Theo (Owen) says and does; I walk with him, think with him, mourn with him and see through his eyes. In this respect he is a very convincing ‘everyman’ figure; an average guy who lost his son to illness and then his wife to estrangement, suddenly sucked into being part of the most important event in the world at very short notice.
Whilst it is unhelpful to think of Children of Men as some sort of dark prophecy (it is ‘just’ a film, after all), its vision of the future is certainly feasible, which is what makes it all the more terrifying. When Alex Proyas gave us I, Robot in 2004, it was difficult to imagine that in just thirty years the world would be virtually run by robots and we’d all be driving hover cars. In Children of Men however, Cuarón gives us an interpretation of what the year 2027 could look like that is incredibly easy to digest (although troubling).
The opening scene shows a crowd gathered in a café staring at the screen of a wall-mounted LCD television, precisely the kind of TVs we have in bars, hotels and our own homes. Whilst back in 2006 this technology was more expensive and less sophisticated, nothing about the TVs in the scene seemed ‘odd’ at the time. Theo then walks outside and London is instantly and unmistakably recognisable but for the large animated billboards stuck to the sides of buildings. Rickshaws clatter past, there’s a branch of Halifax across the road and the London buses are still bright red: nothing is alarmingly different to what we’d expect to see.
The future we see is not one which indicates years of development and progression. The opening scene prepares us for the themes of decay and decline which run throughout the film simply by suggesting that in years to come things will look exactly the same, perhaps just a little more ‘grimy’. In I, Robot it is fascinating to think about what could be achieved in just a few decades, despite how unfamiliar the world appears to us, whereas Children of Men warns us that instead we could start going backwards, watching helplessly as civilisation disintegrates.
The film forced us to ask the eternal question ‘what if..?’, and a decade later this is still the case, although I’d argue that the film is even more powerful today than it was in its year of release. A quick search for the opening scene on YouTube will reveal videos that have endless streams of comments beneath them, written by people citing the Zika virus, mass immigration, Brexit and terrorism as reasons why there isn’t much time left before the film’s vision of the world’s future becomes a living reality. Admittedly some of these attitudes seem rather far-fetched, but Cuarón certainly succeeded in getting people all shaken up.
The most poignant element of Children of Men is that it is largely about ‘ordinary people’ and the frailty of human existence, and doesn’t command the viewer to develop an affection for one particular hero(ine). Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) is outspoken but naïve, unsure how to take care of her baby and forced to rely heavily on Theo. Julian (Julianne Moore) is one of the tougher, stronger characters, complete with a troubled past and chaotic present, but rather than allowing her to die in a heroic blaze of glory at the film’s climax as you might expect, Cuarón ensures she is suddenly shot dead early on, demonstrating the fragility of not only the human body but also life itself. Michael Caine delivers a brief but brilliant performance as the eccentric and slightly stoned Jasper, and is also shot dead soon after his character is introduced. Miriam (Pam Ferris) is what one might call ‘flaky’ but is loyal, comforting and kind throughout, eventually sacrificing her own safety to protect Kee’s secret.
Other than Kee, not one character is placed in a privileged position based on how famous the actor is, how integral they are to the story or how much the viewer might be rooting for them to survive; we aren’t even afforded the knowledge of whether or not Theo passes away at the end of the film. I was genuinely surprised that Kee was allowed to survive, fully expecting her to die during labour or perhaps be shot just moments after giving birth.
Despite the bloodshed, treachery, uncertainty and trauma which permeate Children of Men, it’s more gripping than it is depressing. I admire the ruthless killing of several key characters because in the world we are presented with, it would be grossly unrealistic to assume that they could all survive anyway. Children of Men doesn’t make any excuses or allowances, it is unforgiving, cruel, and sadly in places all too familiar to us (I defy you to watch the treatment of refugees and immigrants in this film without wincing at memories of the Holocaust). The fact that the world Cuarón depicts is quite as familiar to us as it is should tell us something: despite everything, we’ve learnt nothing, and probably never will. That’s the depressing part.
Dir: Alfonso Cuarón
Scr: Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby
Cast: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Pam Ferris, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam
Prd: Hilary Shor, Iain Smith, Tony Smith, Marc Abraham, Eric Newman
DOP: Emmanuel Lubezki
Music: John Tavener
Country: UK, USA
Runtime: 109 minutes