Children should be seen and heard

by Glen Baity

Even when I know in my bones that a movie is good, it’s hard for me to recommend a big downer.

Children of Men might be an amazing picture, but let’s be truthful: It’s a workout, and it’s not a good movie to help you escape the post-holiday stress. I saw it with my father and my brother, both much smarter than me in pretty much every way, and while they each, no doubt, had plenty of insight into this film and a lot to say about it, what they said first was, “That has to be the most depressing movie I’ve ever seen.”

I don’t disagree.

It’s always incumbent on me, however, to supply the ‘yes, but…’

As in: Yes, Children of Men is depressing, but it’s also an ambitious, beautiful film with a lot of insight into what keeps a civilization going. Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation of PD James’ novel posits that our ability to perpetuate our species gives us a never-ending supply of hope. If that supply should be cut off, the implications, globally and locally, are dire.

The film opens in 2027 England, 18 years after the last woman gave birth to a child. Every woman since then, for reasons unknown, has been unable to conceive, bringing about the gradual decline of social order around the globe. The world’s youngest person, a teenager named Diego, has just been murdered, sending billions of strangers spiraling deeper into a years-long depression.

It’s against this backdrop that Theo (Clive Owen), a former activist, is given the task of accompanying Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) to a rumored sanctuary called “The Human Project.” He soon finds out that Kee, against all odds and logic, is eight months pregnant.

The film follows Theo and Kee through safe houses and war zones, all the while chronicling the decay of a world long bereft of hope.

It’s heavy stuff, but I think it’s worth the effort, not least because it’s a fascinating premise. The world suffers no shortage of civilization-on-the-brink films, but most of those are of the Texas-sized asteroid variety. Children of Men imagines the end of the world as a slow burn, in which young and old alike have to wake up, go to work, come home and go to sleep every day for the rest of their lives in a numbing state of shared entropy.

As one of the characters observes, “It’s very odd, what happens in the world without children’s voices.”

What happens, in fact, is less odd than entirely predictable, and (one must imagine) quite accurate: violence, driven by hopelessness, takes hold everywhere. Government propaganda boasts that the rest of the world erupts while England enjoys peace, but the storefront bombings and terrorist abductions are a known quantity to the average Briton.

Cuarón commands strong performances, not just from his excellent leads but from the minor players, who convey a blanket sense of unease in their urgent tones and desperate behavior. He also choreographs some long, impressive action sequences with a level of effectiveness I’ve not seen since Saving Private Ryan.

Children of Men is unique among current cinema in how well it removes the viewer from his or her comfort zone. We all know from a young age that we will eventually die, and we spend our lives grappling with that, but each of us, consciously or unconsciously, entertains the notion that we’ll be remembered.

Imagine, then, knowing that in well under a century, anyone who ever had a memory of you will be gone, and that the work you’re presently doing will come to nothing. No one will ever learn a lesson from your life, no one will ever use anything you’ve built, apply any piece of knowledge you’ve uncovered, or reference any great observation you’ve made. The implications, to make the best possible use of understatement, are stifling.

And under those same circumstances, the implications of a new birth are manifold. By the time Kee’s child is born, the viewer has had ample time to consider what it actually means.

It’s here that Children of Men elevates itself from good to great. There are places in the world, here in 2007, which resemble all too closely the England of the movie. Cuarón’s film examines the tether that connects a society to its collective sanity, and shows the importance of hope in all our lives, whether we acknowledge it or not. What is most fascinating about the film is the feeling it imparts of real possibility – maybe it’s just the times, but one could easily envision a future like this. It’s scary, and yes, quite depressing that we seem so close to it.

That may not be the most ringing endorsement for a film I’ve ever given, but like I said, it’s always hard to recommend a film that might bum people out for several days, no matter the quality. Children of Men is a stirring film that uses the unthinkable to force its audience to think, and pulls it off without a whiff of pretense. The ending is abrupt and arguably unsatisfying, but I think it has a powerful effect, causing the viewer to carry the film’s message outside the theater doors. And despite the above warnings to the contrary, I think that on balance, Children of Men is a hopeful, redemptive picture – it just takes it a while to get there.

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