Rad Tidings: Cuaron's Daring 'Children of Men'

Clive Owen and Julianne Moore deliver accomplished performances in
Clive Owen and Julianne Moore deliver accomplished performances in "Children of Men," set in 2027 London. (By Jaap Buitendijk -- Universal Studios)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 25, 2006

It's altogether appropriate that "Children of Men," an audacious, exhilarating futuristic thriller by Alfonso Cuaron, should open Christmas Day.

A bleak portrait of a dystopian future set against a backdrop of infertility, totalitarian politics and death, it plays like a nativity story for our age, a spirited humanistic message, as well as a welcome ray of hope for the future of cinema itself.

"I'm sure when people walk out of the theater, if you ask if they liked the movie, they won't know what to tell you," Cuaron said during a recent visit to Washington. "Probably they'll say, 'Oh, I don't think so.' " That's fine by the filmmaker -- who came to international attention with his 2001 film "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and later with "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" -- as long as they're thinking about it the next morning. "The only films that matter now," he said, "are the movies that begin when the lights come on."

A loose adaptation of a P.D. James novel, "Children of Men" stars Clive Owen as Theo, a former political activist turned bureaucrat in 2027 London, a city that is the last outpost of the closest thing to civilization in a world gripped by pandemics, environmental destruction and a worldwide immigration crisis. True to his British roots, Theo is leading a life of quiet desperation, receiving occasional nostalgic jolts of idealistic fervor during visits to his old lefty friend Jasper (a marvelous Michael Caine), when he is suddenly paid a visit by Julian (Julianne Moore), his former lover.

Working with an underground organization that tries to help immigrants avoid the prison camps that the tight little island has set up, Julian has a job for Theo involving the transport of a young woman named Kee (newcomer Clare-Hope Ashitey). Theo refuses until money is discussed, and soon he has embarked on a countrywide chase in which the goal is nothing less than the survival of the human race.

If this all sounds like "Blade Runner" by way of Margaret Atwood, think again. "Children of Men" presents such a masterly use of cinematic grammar, such a nuanced use of present-day tropes and such a subversive recasting of the conventional action hero (Owen wears flip-flops through most of the movie) that it feels altogether new.

Working with his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, Cuaron creates the most deeply imagined and fully realized world to be seen on screen this year, not to mention bravura sequences that bring to mind names like Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick. Together, Cuaron and Lubezki decided on a radical visual design for "Children of Men," one that eschews close-ups (you won't find one in the movie) and instead creates a series of detail-packed tableaux in which figure and ground share equal weight. The result is a frame-by-frame essay, not on the future but on the past and present, with a dizzying array of references, from Goya to Pink Floyd to Abu Ghraib.

"Chivo used to say all the time, 'We cannot afford one single frame without a comment on the state of things,' " Cuaron explained. "The story of this movie is just the coat hanger. What's important is the fabric that you're going to hang." The approach, he said, was the same one the team used in "Y Tu Mama," wherein "the social environment is as important as character."

Aside from its chilling familiarity ("I told the art department, 'Stop imagining. It's not about make-believe, it's about referencing' "), what will leave filmgoers slack-jawed in "Children of Men" are two scenes, one a 12-minute car ride that looks as if it was shot in one take (and involves an amazing stunt involving Owen, Moore and a ping-pong ball), and a chase scene through an embattled refugee camp that was shot in a 10-minute uninterrupted tracking shot. So seamlessly are they woven into the narrative of the film that it may take viewers a moment to realize just what they are witnessing.

Cuaron credits the triumph of that final scene to Owen, who had to respond to unexpected accidents in the background and time himself accordingly. "It was the wisdom of Clive to be aware of, 'Okay, should I pause here? How long should I pause before everybody starts getting completely bored?' Or, 'Wow, that cue didn't happen -- what should I do?' " All the while Owen -- who along with the rest of the cast delivers a performance every bit as accomplished as the film they're in -- keeps the audience with him, upping the emotional stakes with each step. "If things go right," Cuaron said, referring to the scene's mix of choreography and spontaneity, "that's what you're praying for."

It's hard to describe "Children of Men" as a feel-good movie. Its setting is too demoralized, its palette too denuded and its conclusion too mournful for that. Still, Cuaron doesn't let despair win the day, and if some people walk out of the theater not knowing quite what to think, others -- those who care deeply about filmmaking in all its technical and expressive potential -- will be walking on air.

Children of Men (106 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong violence, profanity, some drug use and brief nudity.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company