Saturday, February 6, 2016

Review: ROOM

A child tells the story of his birth. His name is Jack. The account has the weird sound of a child piecing together something a parent has said so that by the time it is spoken again, it is as solid as mythology. We descend from a skylight filled with a night sky to a room whose wear and tear make it look exhausted. We are in extreme poverty and as we see the boy go around the room saying good morning to everything in it, each appliance and stick of furniture, we are asking serious questions. The conversations between him and his mother feel very natural but it isn't long before the turns of phrase and missing pieces give them a bizarre flavour. So, will Old Nick bring some supplies from the magic on the TV when he comes next? No, it's not poverty and the boy is not autistic: the mother is an abductee and her son was born in captivity. Everything he understands of the world has come from her reality-softening imagination. The quite moving opening scenes sour to curds in an instant. We recall cases from the news of recent years of abduction and home incarceration. The bright world of the little boy (who does not believe there is anything outside their prison which he knows only as Room) is a dungeon.

When Jack turns five his mother decides it's time to act. First, she reverses his entire world view. There is an outside. There are other people and animals and trees there. Not everything on television is make believe. Room is a prison and now it's time to leave. His response is violent and resistant but every point of skill she has gained in his education so far is used to bargain and reason the real world into existence and she persuades him to help her get at least him to freedom.

While this story has been spoiled by its own publicity (with the purpose of diverting attention from the atrocity at its centre) I'll do little to describe the plot from this point. There is a lot left but that in itself is worth the discovery at the cinema. But it's no spoiler to state that most of this film keeps its eye unwaveringly on the thread between mother and son, the threats that move around it and the fragile strength of its own fabric.

It wouldn't take a stretch to imagine that the outside, if achieved, might contain prisons of its own, however benign, however nicer the decor or the food, or even promise to form just a larger prison. There might even be prisons created within the skulls of the people outside, prisons whose builders have wilfully left locked and keyless.

Once I accepted that this would be the movie I easily settled for its examination of these and further questions. Soon the primarily impressive thing about this film is its insistent focus on the effects of the incarceration and their resonance, the lifelong lessons that will be necessary for the captors to extract themselves fully from their grim beginnings. If plunging into a completely contrary reality poses difficulties for the boy he at least is resourceful and has a child's great capacity for learning. But what of the grown woman who was snatched away as a child, the reverse journey?

It's true that if this had just been a story of the developing bond between parent and child, with the same finely observed writing, it might well have met obscurity. Its birth in atrocity allows for the kind of violent adjustment and committed engagement from us in the seats until our compulsion masks that we ask the same questions of this that we might have left dormant without it. This is a film with the word in its beginning and, from a deftly designed mottled language from a boy who has been educated by a child. Emma Donoghue's adaptation of her own novel seems to have left much of the source intact at the same time as writing a screenplay that is never less than cinematic.

Brie Larson as Joy, the mother, keeps it natural but it's an intense natural. Her face falls when stumbling on a phrase whose hurtfulness is indistinguishable from frustration. She carries her character's bizarre burden as though living in it without bathing. She offers truth, including the possibly unending process of taking form in the world outside. Jacob Tremblay's Jack allows us into the unimaginable character by keeping his childhood close. He is playing an alien newly arrived on Earth (he even asks in earnest if they are on the same planet at one point) but one who responds in the emotional kaleidoscope familiar to anyone who has been a child.

I was one of the few of the few who saw director Lenny Abrahamson's Frank and was left unimpressed with its lack of focus and pleas for indulgence. While there are sagging developments here or a score that travels from Eno-like ambience through post-rock droning to a disappointingly mainstream stringsection swelling up over the end credits there, the piece is strong and confident of its mission. Nowt left for me to say but, "accomplished."

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