This look at Children of Men is written with the assumption that the reader has seen the film, so there will be spoilers.
There is a moment in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity that made me realize a crucial truth about the latter half of the director’s oeuvre. While it is fun to experience Cuarón’s movies as an omnipresent passenger – floating in space with Sandra Bullock in Gravity, desperately oppressed and hunted with Clive Owen in Children of Men or ecstatically aroused with/by Diego Luna in Y tu mamá también – it is when you look closer at them that you’ll discover his true capabilities as an audiovisual director, through pure aesthetic storytelling.
The aforementioned moment in Gravity can essentially be boiled down to a single scene, even a frame. It occurs when Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone enters the International Space Station and, in the euphoria of serenity and safety, curls into the fetal position – backlit by the spherical window to deep space, and obscured by fabric-clad wires; all in the weightlessness of space. It is a beautiful visual metaphor for the womb. The movie is littered with symbolisms of rebirth, and it is through this lens that Gravity becomes much more than the thrill-ride it is known as.
Children of Men is much the same. In the 10 years since its release in 2006, most people will talk about its complex long takes or fresh approach to the dystopian narrative, but as I’ve re-watched the movie for the first time in years, I’ve come to appreciate its subtle (and not so subtle) infusions of aesthetic narrative- and character developments much more.
Not to discredit any other part of the movie: Emmanuel Lubezki’s long takes are masterful, perhaps the best he’s ever has done – and that includes his recent Oscar-winning work with Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) and Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu (Birdman or… and The Revenant). Nor does it ignore the important, and devastatingly familiar commentaries on global warming, mass governmental surveillance and oppression, and immigration – the latter of which is truly painful to watch in the midst of the current migration crisis. I also love the many allusions to the Orwellian, from the obvious narrative links, to the less obvious connotations present in the mise-en-scène: Jasper’s (Michael Caine) home in the woods reminiscent of the clearing in which Winston and Julia hide from the ever-watching eyes of Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four; and the inflatable pig outside Nigel’s (Danny Huston) window an obvious allusion to Animal Farm (more on this later). It is also the fact that Children of Men‘s 2027 London feels eerily inspired by the grey and ruinous Britain, or Airstrip One as its called in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The main take-away for me is how Cuarón and Lubezki choose to frame the characters within the movie. There are countless scenes of pure aesthetic beauty of course – a staple of Lubezki – but more impressive is their ability to tell a story and develop a character through camera placement and compositions. It is not as present in Cuarón’s earlier work – albeit a movie like A Little Princess is a momentous children’s movie – and as such I feel it necessary to attribute it as much to Lubezki as Cuarón’s evolution as a visual filmmaker.
In an early sequence in Children of Men, our main protagonist, Theo (Clive Owen) visits his brother Nigel. He is an employee of the government, and his home stands in stark contrast to the world it inhabits – the outside an industrial complex, the inside a minimalistic artisans abode. Michelangelo’s Statue of David greets Theo as he enters, a monument to Nigel’s internal idealism of peace and liberty – an ideal that is as fluctuant and unpredictable as the broken statue, whose left foot is barely held up by a metal support beam. Nigel underlines this reading of the art in Children of Men when he immediately says they couldn’t save La Pieta – the idea of motherhood and childhood “already destroyed”.
Later in the same sequence Theo and Nigel are seated for dinner, with Nigel’s son lost in an unrecognizable piece of future-tech. In this scene, Theo is framed by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, the pièce de résistance of anti-war art. Its vastness completely absorbs Theo; he is, whether he likes it or not, amalgamated with the painting and the connotations it carries. The famous grey and black color pallet of Guernica is also in perfect harmony with the colors of the movie. While Theo is framed by anti-war symbolism, Nigel has his back turned to the wide windows looking out onto the polluted world he so effectively suppress inside his home. In the sky behind him we can see the aforementioned inflatable pig, a visual homage to Pink Floyd’s 10th studio album, Animals, but a narrative allusion to George Orwell’ Animal Farm – a suitable if somewhat heavy-handed comment on the oppressive governmental rule in the movie. (Side note: seen in today’s political climate, it is eerily reminiscent of the U.S. military surveillance balloon tethered to the ground in Kabul).
More generally, you’ll rarely see two characters in Children of Men within the same frame unless they share a tangible bond – Theo has a few close-ups with Jasper and Julian, and later on Kee, but for the most part he is presented to us alone and isolated, or as part of a crowd; but even then a loner; the opening scene in which he walks among a grieving crowd, entirely apathetic to the situation and their loss. Characters are shot through broken glass and heavy dust, lost in the world in which they live. It is not only in reproduction men are infertile. It is therefore even more profound to learn of Kee’s pregnancy, as it carries with it the rebirth of hope and idealism, of Theo’s will to press on and eventually find inner redemption. This scene shows us Kee naked in a herd of calves – the future of humanity is revealed to us in a sea of fertility and life, of hope.
As the movie comes to an end, we see Kee and Theo seated in a boat, surrounded by impenetrable fog. As the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek so nicely puts it, “the boat is rootless”; Kee and Theo are freed from the shackles of their past, of their old lives, and it is when Kee finally sees the destination they’ve struggled towards that the fog wither away; the frame is finally cleared of the oppressiveness that has been forever present throughout, and maybe, just maybe, humanity can push on.
This look at Children of Men was inspired by the Facebook Group CineBrew, where a bunch of YouTubers, bloggers and movie lovers come together to review/discuss two movies per month.