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Children of Men

One of 2006’s Best Films (Cuarón’s Too)

Based on the 1992 bestselling novel by P.D. James and directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Y Tu Mamá También, Great Expectations), Children of Men is the second film this year (the Wachowski Brothers' V for Vendetta being the other) to depict a totalitarian England controlled by a military dictatorship where civil and constitutional rights are luxuries enjoyed only by political and economic elites. Like V for Vendetta, Children of Men is a cautionary tale of a dystopian future, but with Cuarón at the helm, social and political commentary doesn’t overshadow an otherwise taut, gripping film.

Children of Men is set in Great Britain twenty years after an unexplained plague has resulted in mass infertility. In the aftermath of near economic, social, and political collapse, an authoritarian regime has taken over Great Britain. British citizens have exchanged most of their civil rights and liberties for safety and security, while illegal immigrants, known as "fugees", have no rights or liberties to speak of. They are put in cages, shipped off to detainment camps and eventually deported, if not killed. While British citizens have a government-sponsored alternative to a world without a future -- “Quietus,” a suicide pill -- others turn to millennial sects that preach repentance and punishment for earthly sins. Still others oppose the government’s action through coordinated acts of terrorism.

Theodore Faron (Clive Owen), an ex-activist-turned-bureaucrat, has allowed himself to become comfortably numb. With the exception of his friendship with Jasper Palmer (Michael Caine), a longhaired, pot-smoking ex-activist, Faron drifts unenthusiastically through life. After a visit to Jasper, Faron’s ex-lover, Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore), the leader of a radical resistance group called the Fishes, reappears. Julian asks Theo to help a young refugee woman, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), obtain safe passage to reach the semi-mythical “Human Project”.

It’s hard to see what Cuarón could have done differently to make Children of Men’s depiction of a dystopian future any starker or more effective. Credit goes to Cuarón for updating P.D. James’ 1992 novel to give it topical, contemporary relevance (e.g., Guantanomo Bay and Abu Ghraib references), while consciously keeping distracting gadgets to a minimum and extrapolating what a future London would look like (and it’s not pretty). To give moviegoers a you-are-there experience, Cuarón relies mostly on close-in, handheld camerawork and sinuous tracking shots. Appropriately enough, Cuarón saves his best for last: a chase scene set in a refugee camp turned war zone. Here and elsewhere, Cuarón seems to have taken inspiration from Christian Frei’s 2001 documentary, War Photographer (Frei’s documentary followed photojournalist James Nachtwey on his assignments to some of the most war-torn, dangerous places in the world).

Some moviegoers might find the anti-authoritarian message, complete with a long-haired, pot-smoking mentor, too obvious or heavy-handed, especially coming only months after another post-apocalyptic, dystopian film set in England. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that V for Vendetta's author and comic book legend, Alan Moore, and Children of Men’s author, P.D. James, are both British, and both took satirical aim at what they perceived as troubling, authoritarian tendencies during Margaret Thatcher’s reign as the British Prime Minister (e.g., anti-egalitarian, pro-corporate, anti-union, anti-environmental legislation). Cuarón takes critical aim at the policies of Prime Minister Tony Blair in England and President Bush here in the United States (e.g., anti-immigrant hysteria, restrictions on civil liberties in response to terrorism, increased military spending).

Social and political commentary aside, Children of Men has one or two issues worth mentioning. It ends abruptly when a brief epilogue would have been the better choice. In a film ostensibly about self-sacrifice and hope, an epilogue would have helped the film end on a more emotionally satisfying note. With the exception of one early surprise or shock, the other characters’ fates are all too predictable. Luckily, though, these flaws are minor and unlikely to cause more than a head nod or two in moviegoers.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars