The twenty best films of this decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.
Leap of Faith
Chris Wisniewski on Children of Men
Children of Men didn't really have a "best of the decade" pedigree. An unusually large team of five writers was credited with adapting P.D. James's dystopic novel for the screen, and the ouevre of director Alfonso Cuarón hardly suggested his potential for greatness, despite the reputation for technical inventiveness he had earned with respectable middlebrow fare like Y tu mama tambien, A Little Princess, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Universal Pictures didn't do any favors to this already inauspicious project, releasing it at the tail end of 2006 without investing in the kind of publicity—a blitz of long-lead press screenings, a vigorous Oscar push—that might have led to major awards or even a modicum of buzz. And the studio saddled it with a truly awful trailer, which started with a leaden voiceover from Clive Owen's Theo, "I can't really remember when I last had any hope. And I certainly can't remember when anyone else did, either. Because really, since women stopped being able to have babies, what's left to hope for?" After that glib marketing campaign, Children of Men felt like a real discovery—and a punch in the gut. It seemed to come out of nowhere.
Defying expectations, the clarity of Cuarón's vision was apparent in the movie's opening frames. With stunning confidence, he thrusts viewers into a bleak future: over a black screen, we hear a news broadcast that leads with a story about the death of the world's youngest person—an 18-year-old. Cuarón cuts to a high angle shot of a crowd of people in a cafe, transfixed as they watch the terrible report on a television set. Theo enters and orders a coffee. As he looks up, Cuarón cuts to the monitor, then back as Theo gets his drink and leaves. The camera follows him in a handheld shot out the door, pausing to take everything in after it exits to the London street (a subtitle reveals the date: November 16, 2027). Cuarón's camera turns towards Theo, walking with him and then stopping when he steps aside to add some booze to his coffee. Then there's an offscreen blast. The ringing of Theo's ears takes over the soundtrack as the camera turns back and moves towards the smoking cafe, out of which emerges a woman charred from the explosion, carrying her own arm. The sequence is shocking, even grotesque, but in its narrative efficiency and strict attention to point-of-view it prepares us for the unrelenting cinematic tour de force to follow.
Cuarón's surprisingly bold aesthetic is self-consciously dazzling, but it can't be considered groundbreaking. The film's long-take, pseudo-verité style seamlessly marries Saving Private Ryan’s and The Son’s radically divergent takes on documentary-style realism. Like the Dardennes brothers' film, Children of Men has a vigorously subjective point-of-view: it tracks and trails Theo with almost obsessive attention to his physicality—the squish of his feet in wet socks, the sting of a kitten's nails as it climbs up his leg—peering, from Theo's perspective, at the action surrounding him, often through door frames, windows, and fences. Taking a cue from Spielberg, though, Cuarón lets his camera wander. Transition shots abound, and the camera sometimes lags behind Theo or takes its time locating him in the frame, lingering on the details of its environment (a refugee locked in a cage, graffiti scribbled on a wall, the carcasses of cattle being burned). This allows Cuarón to communicate an immense amount of narrative information through his densely packed mise-en-scène. He largely avoids the typical exposition-heavy scenes or deadly voiceover that would grind a film like this to a halt, instead weaving in videos, newsreports, magazine and newspaper clippings, and street scenes that tell us everything we need to know: human beings are infertile; most of the world has devolved into political chaos; terrorism is rampant; and the British government has adopted a fierce anti-immigrant policy, which it enforces with unforgiving brutality.
Where Saving Private Ryan and The Son used their verité aesthetics to approximate the "real," Cuarón is trading in fantasy; unlike those films, Children of Men's nightmarish setting has no historical or contemporary antecedent. Cuarón uses the vernacular of realism to immerse us in the hypothetical. Without explanation or backstory (James’s novel, by contrast, attributes the infertility to a sudden global drop in male sperm counts), he demands that we accept the film's improbable reality through the sheer, blunt force of his filmmaking. We believe because we have no room to question and no time to catch our breath.
Children of Men's apocalyptic world is fully realized down to the most incidental detail and conceived first and foremost in visual terms. Against this often gruesome backdrop, a miracle precipitates Theo's redemption. Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) a black refugee, is pregnant. A dissident political group called the Fishes, led by Theo's estranged wife, Julian (Julianne Moore), enlists Theo in its effort to deliver Kee to the Human Project, a mysterious group of the world's greatest thinkers, who are working to save some vestige of civilization from its impending obsolescence. Theo contacts his cousin, a government official, to get transit papers for Kee, but he's only able to secure joint papers, requiring him to accompany her on the trip. As a result, Theo finds himself embroiled in a conflict between the Fishes, who murder Julian and attempt to use Kee to gain political leverage for their cause, and the British government, which treats the Fishes, Kee, and Theo as terrorists.
Unlike James's novel, from which Cuarón's film liberally departs, political machinations are a secondary concern for Children of Men. Through its stringent focus on Theo's body and his perspective, the movie prioritizes the character's physical and psychological journey—it's a visceral thrill-ride that is also a story of spiritual regeneration. Alcoholic, cynical, estranged from his wife, and crippled by the loss of his son Dylan, who died in a flu pandemic, Theo has basically resigned himself to misery until he discovers, in Kee's baby, something worth fighting for. In this regard, Cuarón's borrowing more than style from Spielberg, who has always tended to ground science fiction, fantasty, and action-adventure in domestic melodrama. In the classic Spielbergian metanarrative, the world goes mad, but a damaged male protagonist finds meaning by becoming the protector-father, shepherding those weaker than himself through the chaos—broken families are repaired and fractured masculinity is restored. Children of Men follows exactly this trajectory. Theo’s relationship with Kee is strictly platonic, almost paternal. He's a surrogate father to the expectant mother and her child, and after he succeeds in getting Kee and her newborn daughter to their rendevous point at the end of the film, she decides to name the baby after Dylan. It's a symbolic act that echoes the image of Tom Cruise's pregnant wife that closes Minority Report or the family reunion that caps War of the Worlds, though it has greater potency and tragic poignancy than either. Theo couldn't save Julian, his boy, or even himself from the ravages of the world, but by delivering the child's salvation, he helps bring a new life to a dying planet and, in the process, earns his redemption.
Despite the movie's insistent attention to the personal, human scale of its story, it has obvious metaphorical resonance. Knowing full well that Dylan's conception necessarily plays as miraculous, divine intervention, Cuarón takes a sly approach, both playful and earnest, to the inevitable Christ analogy that attends the movie's central conceit. Kee first reveals her pregnancy to Theo in a barn—a direct evocation of the nativity—and Theo responds with a loaded, "Jesus Christ." It's the same response police officer Syd (Peter Mullan) gives after he first sees the baby at the Bexhill refugee camp. When talking to Theo about her pregnancy, Kee (who isn't a character in the book at all—Julian is pregnant in James's novel), even jokes that she's a virgin before admitting that she doesn't know which of her johns—she is, apparently, a former prostitute—fathered the child.
There's something admittedly provocative in the decision to make the movie's Christ figure the daughter of a black African prostitute, but this subversion should not be dismissed as an empty attempt at inciting controversy. The film transplants and superficially reinvents the Christ story (a salvation narrative about a redeemer from humble origins, who is sympathetic to outsiders—the poor, the sick, and, of course, prostitutes—and a threat to entrenched interests), but it keeps the essence of it intact: Kee's baby offers the same hope that Christ does in Luke's Gospel—hope from above, in the theological sense, that is also hope from below, in the political sense. However droll or knowing Cuarón's treatment of the metaphor may be, Children of Men is finally a deeply spiritual film, and, more specifically, a deeply Christian one.
Next to this textured religious allegory, the movie's explicit political interventions feel ham-fisted and already, from the vantage point of 2009, dated. Right from the opening café bombing, the movie is preoccupied with terrorism, which it treats as both a strategy of political resistance and also as a label used by governments to demonize such movements. Rather than exploiting the timeliness of these issues to make the film's obscure political conflicts more intelligible, Cuarón instead turns the movie's political conflict into a metaphor for the Bush era and the War on Terror. When Theo and Kee sneak into Bexhill, they see prisoners being tortured wearing robes and hoods that explicitly echo Abu Ghraib, and they pass a wall covered with fliers featuring the names and faces of missing people, evoking September 11. Later, when an uprising breaks out, a group of Arab refugees march through the camp shouting "Allahu akbar." Already, these references feel like artifacts of the mid-aughts, and they come off as clumsy, as though Cuarón hasn't quite worked through what he's trying to say. Cuarón confuses things further by confounding these highly charged contemporary images with familiar Holocaust iconography. The naked prisoners, piles of dead bodies, and long lines of racialized Others being pushed and prodded into Bexhill give it the look and feel of a twenty-first century concentration camp. The camp functions as a comment on contemporary politics and as a catch-all symbol of oppression, government-sanctioned violence, and genocide, but in negotiating these competing impulses, Children of Men fails to reconcile them coherently.
Though the movie's ideas don't always hold up to thorough scrutiny, these and other false notes (the visual recreation of the album cover to Pink Floyd's Animals during Theo’s visit with his cousin) are quickly forgotten, because the filmmaking leaves us constantly enthralled—assaulted by images, exhilarated by technique. For this, credit should go in large part to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. It is tempting, when cataloging a decade's best films, to lapse into lazy auteurism, to praise directors as though they alone are responsible for their films' lasting artistry. Yet Children of Men is as much Lubezki's accomplishment as it is Cuarón's; years from now, when critics look back on his work here and with Terrence Malick on The New World, Lubezki will be regarded as one of the era's great film artists.
In Children of Men, the vibrant reds of buses and pale oranges of burning fires pop in Lubezki's otherwise drab, washed-out color palette. And the virtuoso craftsmanship of many of his long takes is simply beyond belief. In the film's most impressive shot, Lubezki's camera travels into, around, and finally out of a moving car in a heart-stopping single-take, five-minute action sequence. Later, midway through another astonishing single-take sequence in Bexhill, blood splatters onto the camera, and though Theo dodges bullets, crosses alleyways, and crouches behind walls, the blood still sits there, reminding us that the camera is rolling and that we haven't seen a cut. He runs into a building, and the camera tilts up, then back down. The blood has disappeared, but it's impossible to see where the shot ended. These self-conscious flourishes should take us out of the film—they are, after all, evidence of artifice; they call attention to the camera. Instead, Lubezki's exceptional use of color and his daring long takes heighten the thrill and the suspense of watching. His and Cuarón’s technical accomplishment is the movie's other miracle, and their boundary pushing is revelatory and invigorating: if this cinematic decade has been one long march towards film's obsolecence, Lubezki and Cuarón show an enduring faith in the medium.
Faith is indeed at the crux of it. Late in the movie, Theo sits in an abandoned school with Miriam (Pam Ferris), the midwife charged with assisting Kee as she carries her child to term. There are murals on the walls and tree branches growing through the broken windows. A deer scampers about the empty hallways. Miriam reflects on what it means to live in a world without young people, "As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd, what happens in a world without children's voices." Despite all the violence and brutality, this may be the movie's saddest moment, and the eerily quiet, dilapidated school is the most haunting expression of the film's dystopia. After Dylan’s birth, Theo and Kee must carry her through the war zone of Bexhill, avoiding explosions and flying bullets. The baby begins to cry, and the sound pierces the air, offering a shrill, beautiful antidote to the awful silence of the school. When the soldiers and refugees hear the baby’s cry, the fighting stops. The soldiers fall to their knees as Theo and Kee pass with Dylan; the desperate refugees reach out to touch the infant. They pause in recognition of something greater than themselves, and they are united by their common humanity. Though Children of Men confronts us with the worst that we are capable of, this moment of grace is pure and powerful enough to make us believe in the best side of ourselves that it reveals—and in film’s capacity to reveal it.
More on Children of Men from Reverse Shot.