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Children of Men (2006)

by on 2012/01/07

“Yeah, it’s not working.”

* * *

As likely a candidate as I could have sought for last month’s unconventional holidays, Children of Men is an interesting experiment. While not entirely satisfying, it presents the Nativity legend in a hard-bitten, near-future context. Its original beginnings and strong execution are let down along the way.

Set in 2027, in a London, England plagued by infertility, we follow the day-to-day life of a man named Theo (Sin City’s Clive Owen). He is drawn against his will out of a humdrum clerical existence by his estranged wife, Jules (Julianne Moore of Next). Soon the reluctant protector of a pregnant woman, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), he finds they have become targets as much as saviours.

The cast’s standout role is relatively minor, Jasper (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ Michael Caine clearly channelling John Lennon). A latter-day hippie, he’s a sounding board, and fairly entertaining in a spare auxiliary role. He’s not exactly convincing, and doesn’t fit well in the world — which may be by intention — but his levity and quirk are refreshing, if all too rare.

The bulk of the story seeks to explore a variety of weighty themes, from privacy and security to the treatment of refugees. However, through a combination of quantity, shifting focus, and vague oppressiveness, the mass effect is both uneven and numbing. The pastiche of sociopolitics and scattershot sensationalism led me from comparing the movie to features like The Handmaid’s Tale and 28 Days Later to video-ready fare like Fortress and Doomsday.

I was stunned to learn the script was nominated for an Oscar. For all its noble pretensions, I was often jarred by its lines. Marred by overt exposition, I doubted its control. Characters ask each other about things for our sake, and in cumbersome ways, explaining things they should already know. One character refers to himself in the third person, almost always an awkward irritant. “Did you know the Human Project is supposed to have a community on the Azores?” another asks matter-of-factly. At a critical point, still another curses, “Jesus Christ!” as if in Annunciation.

On occasion, the symbolism got at least as heavy-handed. A pig-shaped balloon flies outside a window. Animals instinctively take a liking to Theo. He has a persistent difficulty finding shoes, though he eventually settles for sandals. There’s so much packed in, you’re bound to be insulted by something.

On the other hand, the audio/visual filmmaking crafts are decidedly effective. An extended war zone sequence near the end is as viscerally suspenseful as technically impressive, and a bus ride into a prison is emotionally harrowing. The cities are urban wastelands, and even the pristine countryside’s faded. From terrorized streets to dilapidated shacks, and back through bombed out husks, I was constantly drawn in by its world’s reality.

The general environment is simultaneously drab, gritty, and oddly beguiling. News reports, propaganda, and pharmaceutical ads lend a realistic texture to the periphery. Technology is rare and often utilitarian. These subtler touches shade more obvious strokes, adding verisimilitude to the bigger set pieces.

Ultimately, despite my admiration for its construction, Children of Men just didn’t connect with me. I can accept it not being a light and cheery experience, but even its ideas were less compelling than academic. Somewhere between intent and execution, something went awry. When the best thing of all is a stoned old man’s jokes, you know there’s a bit of a problem.

* * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

110 minutes

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