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Although this film surely belongs in the dystopian category, in addition to the suggestion that the near future may contain social horrors it carries other more optimistic messages as well. The movie’s performances far exceeded my expectations, as did the story itself. The work ranks as an artistic achievement which reveals both some of the best and worst aspects of the human species.
The movie opens with English news announcers reading the usual politically charged headlines. However, another story stands apart from the rest. According to the BCC broadcast the youngest person on earth: Diego Ricardo (Juan Gabriel Yacuzzi), known as “Baby Diego” though he was in his late teens and apparently not very childlike in any positive way, has been killed in a brawl. The camera shows a crowd watching a television in a café. Theo Faron (Clive Owen) works his way through the crowd to the café counter. While he waits for his coffee, along with the others he views the TV giving details of “Baby Diego’s” troubled life. Many in the crowd display a deep sadness which would be considered atypical today upon hearing of the death of a brawler. Shortly after Theo gets his coffee and leaves walking a few feet down the street, a bomb explodes destroying the café.
That one scene carries a tremendous amount of information about the world in which Theo lives: it has been almost twenty years since a child has been born and that last child born has been killed in street violence. Director Alfonso Cuarón and his other screenplay contributors have taken the world provided by P.D. James, author of the novel which provides the basis for this movie, and cleverly translated it to film. Showing a world, similar but even bleaker than today’s, which from a human point of view, has lost most of its future.
Theo works at the Ministry of Energy. He speaks with his boss about feeling the effects of “Baby Diego’s” death and asks to finish his work at home. His transit ride gives another sample of the bleak world in which he lives as the train moves through desolate areas while attackers hurl objects at it. Heavily armed soldiers/police patrol the transit station at his destination. In its parking area Theo meets his friend Jasper (Michael Caine, superlative in this role as usual), a former political cartoonist, who takes him to his home. Jasper and his lady have retreated from the urban decay of London.
As Jasper and Theo travel by car through the English countryside they discuss the café bombing and “Baby Diego.” From their talk one gets a more straightforward sampling of the real attitudes of people, rather than the propaganda dispensed by TV talking heads. For example, about the bombing Jasper says: “You know who did it?” Theo replies: “Islamic? Fishes? Fuck knows.” Jasper continues: “I’ll bet it was the government. Every time one of our politicians is in trouble, a bomb explodes.” While Deep Purple’s “Hush” plays on the car radio, they pass burning bodies. Although, at first one might think the bodies those of perhaps diseased animals, a closer look suggests otherwise.
When they reach Jasper’s retreat, the camera pans over a display of photos and news clippings which give background on Jasper and his lady Janice (Philippa Urquhart). While a cover of “Ruby Tuesday” provides background music, Jasper and Theo tend to Janice – who appears to have a cognitive disorder – but a closer look at those historical clippings suggests other explanations than mere aging. Jasper remains devoted to Janice, and also demonstrates skills as an excellent host when he shares the treasures of his home and agricultural efforts with Theo.
In the next scene, Theo has returned to London. His alarm clock wakes him for a new day. While passing piles of garbage and patrols with captive "fugees" (refugees), “fishes” abduct Theo and force him at gunpoint into a passing minivan. They take him to Julian (Julianne Moore) who leads the Fishes: a political group agitating for immigrant rights. Julian shares a deep personal history with Theo and wants him to get “transit papers” (allusions to Casablanca) for a fugee girl: Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey). Eventually, Theo meets with Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to take the fishes up on their request. Theo and Julian will accompany Kee and Miriam (Pam Ferris) in their quest to transport Kee to safety. Why does one “fugee” attract such efforts? I suggest you watch the film and find out.
With this film I believe Alfonso Cuarón has created a modern masterpiece. I anticipate watching it many more times with each viewing revealing more subtle features. The soundtrack also has many treats which add to the film’s total effect. Although the film’s palpable condemnation of all politics often occupies center stage, the optimistic aspects of humanity rising above such drags on the spirit predominate. Theo may be the main hero and major protagonist, but I also especially like Jasper and his way of dealing with the horrors of the world in which politics has placed them all. Most of today’s audiences might not find a movie in which “everyone lived happily ever after” believable. Many of the “good guys” in this film may not survive, but their goals advance from their efforts. They choose their fates freely and face them with dignity. I give Children of Men my highest recommendation.
Musical score CD