When Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men opened in cinemas in 2006, while it came with a strong reputation I have to admit by being put of by the presence of Clive Owen. While a good actor I have always found him hard to get on with on-screen and so with a couple of exceptions have never rushed to see a film he stars in.
Based on a book by PD James the story follows Owen’s character, Theo, from his role as a small cog in the at least semi-fascistic government machine of the UK circa 2027 (a bit like a misrerabilist version of Jonathan Pryce in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil) to become, somewhat accidentally but with hints of more intent, a key player in the rebellion against said government.
On top of this is the fact that for reasons never totally explained (in a good kind of way like Romero’s zombies) no children have been born in the best part of two decades. This fact instantly gives the whole world of film a kind of hopeless quality which becomes one of the film’s key themes and the one ray of light that allows it to be tolerable from a mood perspective.
I’ll get dealing with Owen out-of-the-way first and, as is fairly usual (maybe with the exception of Shoot ‘Em Up) his performance is great, fitting the drab and dour presence required for Theo excellently.
My dislike of him may in fact be a bonus here given the fact that Theo, at least to start with, is a surly, miserable and generally not very likeable chap, though the reasons for this are pretty obvious as we explore more of the world in which he is trapped.
Probably my highlight performance of the film, and for the most part its one ray of light, is Michael Caine as Jasper, an old revolutionary, hippy and wholesale cannabis farmer.
This feels like Caine in his prime, rather than more recent roles that have amounted more to him appearing and simply being rather than actually acting and it was great to see.
The other real highlights of the film come not from the performances but from the world building and the themes.
Cuaron and his team created an astonishingly real future England, particularly London, its surrounding countryside and the Bexhill refugee camp. Little touches really stand out and from the opening scene in a cramped coffee shop to the closing sequences in the camp these feel like real places we know now but twisted and changed in ways most will find genuinely perverse – but given the political shifts since the films release also worryingly like they could be prophetic.
The thematic side also feeds into this as, while it is for the most unremittingly bleak with caged illegal immigrants in city centres, abandoned schools due to the lack of children or apparently marauding gangs outside of the city, as the film goes on hope builds for both Theo and, respectively, us.
As with the prophetic feel of the setting that has been magnified by time thanks to Brexit, Trump, et al, this them of hope is therefore also heightened leaving the film on a surprising high, but boy, is it a slog to get there.
This all makes for a genuine science fiction masterpiece in the style of a possible future and warning parable sense, like 1984 or Brave New World, but more urgent and current than either of those and made in a way that makes it something genuinely special thanks to the style of Cuaron and, dare I say it, the brooding presence of Owen.