Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Based on the novel by P.D. James. Starring Clive Owen, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Michael Caine, Pam Ferris, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Peter Mullan, and Julianne Moore.
Spoilers follow. You’ve been warned.
It’s 2027, and time’s running out on humankind. No child has been born in 18 years, which means that elementary schools are obsolete and playgrounds have fallen into disrepair. An unspecified catastrophe has sterilized all women, and some form of manmade disaster has wrecked the world—these two things are probably related, though it’s never spelled out for sure. Illegal immigrants, desperate to escape the charred, corpse-strewn landscape and whatever has killed the rest of this world, flood into Great Britain, one of the last bastions of civilization.
A country with such power could wield it like a fountain pen, realizing that it served (willingly or not) as the base of human existence. But director Alfonso Cuarón (and author P.D. James) aren’t interested in revisiting the utopia of Star Trek. Blade Runner is too lighthearted for Children of Men, a film in which London wields its power as a shotgun. Those immigrants get boxed into cages, sent to refugee camps, and suffer through even worse options. Paranoia and propaganda—those evil twins—run rampant. Practically every surface is covered by video and animation for the state: “Avoiding fertility tests is a crime.” “Suspicious? Report immediately.” “Only Britain Endures.” Billboards for Quietus, a popular drink, are everywhere; its motto is “You decide when to go”—assisted suicide is now sold over the counter.
Other propaganda exists, too. We see stenciled designs on walls reading “The Human Project Exists.” A mythical offshore project, it’s a place where topnotch scientists are trying to re-fertilize the world, to make a way for a baby to be born in these barren times. In this world of blue, brown, and gray, shot in long and restless tracking shots like a war reporter with a great eye, the Human Project is the only splash of vibrant color in this dark world. Well, we have to imagine the color—nobody knows if the Human Project is real. It’s either an emblem of true hope or dangerous delusion, depending on your perspective.
This polarization runs elsewhere as well. Graffiti for the Fishes—either the most dangerous terrorist group in London or the most expedient freedom fighters in the country, depending on your politics—is everywhere. The Fishes are blamed for the frequent bombings for which they take no credit, but their past indicates that they at least once were as treacherous as al-Qaeda. They offer hope of an uprising against the corrupt government. We don’t really know what they have to offer, though, since, as the protagonist says at one point, “in 100 years, there’ll be no one around to see any of this. What keeps you going?”
Children of Men answers that question.
Its protagonist is Theo (Clive Owen). He drinks too much scotch; his flask is an appendage to his body. I can’t blame him. A former political activist fighting against the Man, he’s now working for Him as a low-level Ministry of Energy flunkie. The dimly lit, cluttered, cramped workplace reminds us of Terry Gilliam’s dystopian Brazil, except that Theo’s got far less hope than Sam Lowry. Before the credits roll, a crowd in a coffeeshop watches, in horror, newsreel footage that announces that the youngest person in the world (he’s 18) has just been killed. Theo weaves through the anguished faces, but he just wants his coffee; he barely looks up at the TV screen. The calm expression on his face, and his curt actions, are a fierce counterpoint to the rest of the audience. As he exits the restaurant, he splashes some hooch in his styrofoamed latte, and walks a few steps. Behind him, the coffeeshop explodes with a muffled boom and raincloud-colored smoke. Screams and sirens clog the air. A woman emerges from the wreckage, dazed and stumbling, and holding her severed arm. From the look on his face, we can see that Theo has been torn from his stupor. All of this takes place in a single, unbroken take.
And then comes the title card.
From that point on, we’re on edge the same way that we were watching Munich and War of the Worlds. No musical cue, no surging strings, and no sudden shifts to black-and-white or softly lit photography will alert us that something’s coming. A bullet could cut through the frame, through a windshield or a woman’s neck, at any time. Cuarón’s restless camerawork and seemingly effortless compositions—every frame is perfect, revealing and concealing just what we need to know and to keep us watching between our fingers—are as kinetic as Spielberg’s. His muted color scheme and a decided lack of panorama views harkens back to Minority Report and Saving Private Ryan. And, like Spielberg, Cuarón uses his technical prowess to convey moral purpose.
Theo lives in a world without hope, and Children of Men is photographed and designed in such a way that his moral bleakness is projected onscreen. Even his safe haven, a rural outpost where his bohemian parents live, isn’t pastoral or bucolic—it’s just less smudged and soot-stained than London, and a little more colorful. The movie’s world evokes the here-and-now, just slightly heightened. Owen’s world-weary postures—he’s a gorgeous, sexy man, but he’s sexiest at his most morose—brought to mind something said by writer Nathan Englander in an interview:
The last story in the collection, where a young man in Jerusalem experiences a bombing, seems like the only one that may be somewhat autobiographical.
That last story, “In This Way We Are Wise,” has the most autobiographical elements woven of any of them, and I obviously use the conceit of using the name Natan, which is not a big jump. Jerusalem blows up all the time; it’s been a lovely couple of years.
Owen displays the same fling-your-hands-up despair of Englander’s ironic/loving quip—it’s been a lovely eighteen years for him. He cares, but doesn’t want you to know it. What makes Owen’s performance so marvelous is how he transforms the character, and transforms our understanding of his world, as the movie progresses. As the movie begins, he’s withdrawn from the world. He doesn’t have friends. He doesn’t socialize at work. He retreats into the bottle constantly. He’s effectively disowned his activism—i.e., his engagement with the world—and confuses his disownment with resilience and stoicism.
But Cuarón doesn’t. The bomb-threatened London could be modern-day Jerusalem with the brakes removed. The refugee camp that we later see could be the horror of current Baghdad with a little more institutionalized ferocity. The future’s grim but Children of Men’s vision doesn’t spring unbidden from paranoid leftist fantasy but from the world in which we live. And, since the terror doesn’t come from above but from human lapses, he sees that it’s up to humans to fix things. Retreat—emotional or otherwise—isn’t a viable option.
Instead, the film believes, and wants us to believe, in the possibility of redemption, despite all the darkness. In order to get us empathizing with this sad world, Children of Men gives us a fully realized, highly specific place of dazzling depth. I’ve made the quality of the mise-en-scene evident, but the richness of its characters can’t be ignored. So many lives in this film are sharply etched in few scenes. Jasper (Michael Caine) exudes gentle stoner wit, even as he faces his death, but Caine gives the character a richness beyond Baby Boomer stereotypes. Jasper serves as Theo’s father figure—it’s not clear if he’s his biological father—and provides his son with a representation of how to live life beyond the narrow confines of solipsism.
In fact, most of the characters show useful—dangerous, sure, but all life in this movie is dangerously lived—alternatives to self-absorption for Theo. His ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), leader of the Fishes, shows how he could have lived his life if he hadn’t given in to self-pity. But Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor), her compatriot and betrayer, shows how Julian’s ideals can be warped and corrupted—in short, how politics (like a virus) can take over a person’s moral consciousness, consuming the other aspects of her consciousness. Miriam (Pam Ferris) and Syd (Peter Mullan), who refers to himself in the third-person, provide the precious few moments of laughter in the film, but they’re not just there for comic relief. Miriam worked as a obstetric nurse before her job became obsolete. In a crumbling elementary-school classroom, she revisits the time in which she gradually realizes that midwifery is no longer necessary. Theo listens, and is heartbroken. So are we. Syd, initially a friend guiding Theo and company to safety, is a wisecracking fool. Then he becomes a terror, and the subtle change is almost unnoticeable until it’s too late for the audience.
But the movie’s truest catalyst for change is Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey). She’s an illegal African immigrant, and she’s who Julian, Miriam, Theo, and everyone are trying desperately to transport to the Human Project (if, again, it even exists). Kee is pregnant, eight months along.
Theo gets wrapped up in Kee’s quest, acquiring transit papers for her before he even knows who she is. The more he (a Westerner) immerses herself in her (third-world) life, the more he cares about the state of the world. It’s no longer an abstraction to shy away from, but a world—no matter how shoddy—to embrace and fight for.
You can’t avoid the Biblical undertones of Children of Men, and you wouldn’t want to. Kee’s won’t be a virgin birth—she’s a prostitute; she and Theo joke that she’s got no idea who the father is. Biologically, he’s not the father, but spiritually he might as well be Joseph to Kee’s Mary. In a grace note, a small flock of sheep ramble through the rubble, in the midst of a fierce gun battle, evoking the Good Shepherd without spelling it out.
And, like Christ himself, the baby gets politicized and used to justify everything under the sun, even before the kid’s born. Noel Vera, who’s written one of the smartest takes on the movie, gets at why Children of Men’s politics aren’t as easily parsed as you might think, and how its ambiguities make it great:
And it’s not as liberal-leftist as you might think; the rebel group is as bad if not worse than the fascist regime—Owens and his precious cargo have to negotiate a delicate path between the two warring groups. That final scene, of the ship picking her up—is it such a happy ending? Maybe, if she weren’t so alone. As is, it’s open-ended; those men could just be another group out to exploit the hapless girl, only this time no dark knight in tattered armor will save her. Either that, or the ship is a construct of a fevered mind, dreaming its way out of a hopeless situation. A quick cut to black is no way to put such questions to rest, though Cuaron does tease us with the cries of children bubbling up from behind the black screen (a token of hope, or yet another sadistic tease?).
In any case, it’s politics that make both the child and its mother passive, rather than active, participants in the movie. Kee is acted upon, rather than acting upon life. I’m not talking about Ashitey’s performance, which is startling. She portrays the character as steely and distrustful of others, with good reason. Kee’s seen the meanness of the world in the way that most of the characters have not, and Ashitey gets this across without being overbearing.
She’s seen it all except, of course, childbirth. When struck with pregnancy, she reverts subtly back into the child she actually is. (Ashitey is nineteen; Kee’s not supposed to be any older.) She has to cared for, as she’s naïve about the most basic things—when her water breaks, she flies into a panic; she’s got no idea what’s happening to her. She doesn’t know how to nurse her infant. This mixture of maturity and childishness—really, Kee’s defensive posture of maturity that disguises her inner adolescent—comes across wonderfully in Ashitey.
Of course, why wouldn’t she be naïve about childbirth? No one in her generation has had reason to learn, and no one of the previous generation has needed to teach her. Theo has to teach Kee how to burp and hold the child. This is significant—Theo’s one of only major characters in the movie who’s been a parent before. He and Julian lost their son Dylan to a flu epidemic, and the resultant grief dissolved their marriage. As the movie’s Joseph figure, he helps Kee (Mary) usher in the new Son of God.
Except that it’s not a Son at all. Children of Men’s Christ child is a girl. In a film full of nerve-shattering surprises, this is the quiet one that upsets all our notions. Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the leader of the left-leaning Fishes, can’t even comprehend that he might be a she. (Theo has to tell him; the look on Luke’s face is perfectly juggled awe and disappointment.) Just as a child upends a parent’s notion of life upon its birth, and on many days after that, Dylan’s presence as a girl, a potential mother, as something unexpected (The Fishes sooooo expected a male leader, a Gabriel with flaming sword rather than a Christ with loaves and, ahem, fishes.) flicks aside the political aspirations—left, right, or otherwise—that the movie’s characters weigh her down with.
Of course, critics weigh the movie down. Matt Zoller Seitz, author of another smart take on the movie, sees the movie’s aims as less enormous than evasive, less empathetic than showy:
The problem with Children of Men is that it’s too much of a performance and not enough of a movie. It’s filled with emphatic yet fleeting references to a century’s worth of miseries and atrocities, from the U.S. war in Vietnam and concurrent domestic unrest to Bosnia-Herzegovina, 9/11, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. And Owen’s character, Theo—an ex-radical turned civil servant who’s asked by his ex-lover, the guerilla leader Julian (Moore), to secure letters of transit for the pregnant Kee—could be seen as emblematic of contemporary western political malaise, if you squint really, really hard. Unfortunately, although these touches and Cuaron’s meticulous direction indicate otherwise, the film lacks a coherent vision.
That’s well-written, but wrong. It’s just that the vision is religious rather than political. Critics have pointed (approvingly or not) the overt political nature of Children of Men, but they’re missing the point. Politics are front and center, but only so that they can be subverted. Sure, without children to temper it and give it hope, the modern world has turned into a fascist state. But the alternative uprising is just as brutal and dehumanizing. The film has to leave the city—with its nonstop propaganda—before it finds sunlight and warmth, a place of peace without slogans. As the Fishes discuss how to deal with the coming birth, the heated conversation feels more like a Senate hearing than a joyous celebration. One Fish claims that they can’t go public with the childbirth because no one will accept the Christ child coming from an illegal African immigrant. Others concur. The kid’s reduced to a position paper.
Children of Men—by making Kee a human, believable version of Mary (rather than an unassailable, beatified virgin); by making the world’s savior an African infant; by showing that the child’s (and thus the world’s) survival comes only by the collaboration of white Europeans and black Africans; by refusing to deify one political extreme over another—refuses to reduce anyone to the 21st-century version of the Port Huron Statement. It’s not that the movie is unpolitical, but rather that politics is only a part of a much more interesting, multifaceted whole.
To that end, it’s worth quoting Seitz again, this time from his 2006 review of Inside Man. (I’m snipped this before, but it’s worth repeating.):
I also appreciated Lee’s visual intelligence: The way Inside Man starts out by isolating its supporting characters with discrete, zoomed-in close-ups (most of them are talking on cell phones or listening to iPods), and then, as the movie goes on, unites everyone by moving from person to person in lengthy, uncut, Steadicam shots. It’s a visual analog for how trauma forces people out of their private technological bubble and forces them to connect with what Deadwood creator David Milch calls “the larger human organism.”
This is precisely what’s happening during the bravura long-take scenes in Children of Men. Theo, isolated and numb, is forced, through Cuarón’s technical and aesthetic vision, to connect himself to the rest of the world. He’s part of the flow, and can’t cut it into carefully managed fragments anymore. No matter how traumatic things get, Theo’s life is part of the wider human experience. Our engagement with Children of Men’s world is heightened by these excruciatingly long takes—even Seitz admits that he leaned forward as scenes progressed, as if to immerse himself fully into the movie. The audacious effect is not a performance piece, but a means for understanding Theo’s thrust back into full life.
Engagement with, and not separation from, the world is the only path for salvation, for redemption, open in Children of Men. Christ taught this lesson as well. Aesthetically and morally, it tells us to lean in closer, to pay attention to ambiguity, and to transcend politics to connect to the “larger human organism”—even the part of it that makes us uncomfortable. The film’s willingness to engage seriously with religion, through a sci-fi lens, makes Children of Men both one of the riskiest and most rewarding movies of the year.
UPDATE: As befitting a deeply resonant and challenging movie, there have been lots of noteworthy responses to Children of Men. Above, I’ve linked to a few, but I should point Wax Banks’s intelligent and well-argued response. As you’ll see, its assessment diverges from mine at some critical junctures, but it’s well worth the read.