What makes you get up in the morning when you know the end is near?
This very question looms over Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film “Children of Men,” which is based on the eponymous novel by P.D. James. Set in 2027 Britain, Theo Faron (Clive Owen) must escort Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a young pregnant woman, out of a country where no babies have been born for decades. The film was screened as part of the Hirschfield International Series on Jan. 12.
Perhaps the most immediately intriguing thing about “Children of Men” is the core of its conflict: instead of a nuclear war, an aggressive infectious disease, or another overworked dystopian trope, the film centers around a global pandemic of female infertility. Kee’s pregnant body is treated with exaggerated care and protection that becomes the single deciding factor in each choice made. Cuarón dedicates an entire scene to a room full of activists arguing over the best place to take her, which Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) concludes with a simple sentence: “This is your choice.” Now, pregnancy truly is the “miracle of life” and the female body its bearer.
These political undertones are in part what allows “Children of Men” to preserve its poignancy even 13 years after its release. Major news themes of the past years are echoed in a manner that is almost frightening. Tight-lipped Britain shows a preoccupation with illegal immigrants who are held in cages by Homeland Security. Foreigners face deportation and are yelled down by officers on their way to the refugee center. Street scenes appear as though they are directly modelled after news images of Syria, Yemen or Iraq.
Not only do these images feel eerily familiar, they are impeccably captured. Emmanuel Lubezki’s Academy Award-winning cinematography is dynamic, fluid and a pleasure to watch. Unlike typical, tightly-cut action scenes, scenes appear as though they were filmed in one drawn out shot. When the group is ambushed during their car ride, the camera circles around the inside of the car to show actions in real time. The result is a frightening series of obscure images that wholly absorbs its audience. Without noticing, you have held your breath for the entire duration of a scene.
“Children of Men” is able to create this grip while holding the audience at an arm’s length. As the camera stays in Theo’s immediate proximity for most of the film, Lubezki shows scenes as they occur behind a window or in the far end of a room. Without the presence of the camera in the space, dialogue begins to appear completely candid, actions uncensored. Somewhat ironically, it is this physical distance that makes the film so thrilling: someone could turn their head and notice us at any moment. We are made to feel like eavesdroppers, a part of the mission.
This level of sophistication extends to the film’s motifs. As Kee gives birth in a dreary, dim room and the fire momentarily silences as she walks through the hallways of a building under attack with her newborn daughter, it is difficult to think of her story as something other than a kind of secular nativity scene. Soon after they have passed the dismayed soldiers, some of whom drop to their knees and draw a cross on their chest, explosions reclaim the soundscape.
“I thought that was so clever because that’s us,” screenwriter Hawk Ostyn reflected during the Q&A that followed the screening. “Things come into our lives and they move us for a little bit and then it’s [back] to the old.” In this regard, “Children of Men” has something to say about humanity’s tendency to stand in its own way. Rather than taking a hint and altering our actions, an almost chronic lack of self-reflection appears to drive us to the same disastrous mistakes time and time again.
The film relies heavily on such technical subtleties — at times even too much. As a protagonist, Theo is opaque and relatively static. Despite occasionally raising his voice and breaking down in tears without prior warning, his demeanor is scornful and at times tiring to follow. Ashitey’s performance as Kee is by far the most interesting that the film has to offer, yet even her character feels underdeveloped as the script clings to her as a source of comic relief. For a film that discusses the core of our existence, the portrayal of raw humility in “Children of Men” leaves room for improvement.
Ostyn’s commentary offered some insight as to why this may be.
“What’s it like to get up when you know that there is really no future, how do you bother to do anything?” he contemplated as he described what initially drew him to the story. Perhaps the hopelessness of the situation has simply sunken into these characters, showing them as products of their environment. Yet while this may account for Theo’s staleness, many questions about characterization remain unanswered.
Given its sheer quality of craftsmanship, it would be difficult to argue that “Children of Men” is not a film worth watching. Any issue with character development feels futile compared to the thrill that the film’s visual and philosophical elements spark. “Children of Men” has earned its right to be screened in 2019.