Many Potter fans will of course be aware that the stunning Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban film owes its aesthetic and emotional richness largely to its director, Alfonso Cuarón. While some fans may claim that his involvement damaged the visual continuity of the series, it is widely accepted that this was a necessary step to develop a more enveloping series. His artistic flair and wonderful cinematography is of course present in his new film, Children of Men. Set inBritain in the year 2027, this film tells the tale of Theo Farren (Clive Owen), an activist-turned-bureaucratic-ministry-worker who becomes a vital part in the survival of the human race. Women in this time are no longer able to conceive children and, without hope, the world has spiraled into chaos.
As the film begins, commuters are gathered around a television in a coffee shop on a grey, misty London morning. The news is filtering through that the youngest person on earth has died. The people watch, transfixed in despair. This person was 18 years old. The tone of the film is set in a wonderfully short space of time. The image of these people gathered around a television and watching bad news echoes terrorist attacks of recent times. As Theo exits the coffee shop, the camera follows and turns back moments before the coffee shop explodes, throwing his surroundings into an all too familiar chaos. This is Cuarón’s vision of a world torn apart by hopelessness and fear. It instills this vision early and brutally. There will not be any bright colors, studio camera work or blockbuster action sequences. It will be fast, rough and unexpected. Prisoner of Azkaban has a similar start, not in action of course (imagine the Dursleys’ home exploding; "What will the neighbors think, Vernon!") but in the way that the director spends little time preparing us for what is to come. Just enough time is spent telling us the title of the film before we are thrown into Harry's domestic torture. In a short space of time we are shown magic, conflict and one of the prevailing emotional centers of the film: Harry's family or lack thereof.Prisoner of Azkaban is that of Pam Ferris, who of course plays Aunt Marge. In Children of Men she plays the sometimes wacky Miriam, a new-found activist and former midwife. She, like Caine, portrays a wonderfully rich character amidst a sea of straight faces. In short, these performances are top notch, even down to the background artists providing the many refugees and army soldiers. As in Prisoner of Azkaban, Cuarón 's ability to tease a wonderful performance is present with every actor, but they are never the melodramatic, over-the-top performances that plague other science fiction films.
The wonderful thing about Children of Men is that nothing on screen ever feels contrived or artificial. The Academy Award-nominated cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki depicts a world that echoes the war-torn Middle East, but never seems too far away from modern day Britain. This is the future, but one which isn't as sleek and shiny as in other science fiction films you may have seen. The lack of prosperity in the human race is apparent in every frame. The cars and public transport are dated (even by futuristic standards), the buildings have fallen into disrepair, and even the weather – in its perpetual overcast state – foreshadows humanity on the brink of extinction.
This world is distinct and vividly imagined, in much the same way that Cuarón’s magical world for Prisoner of Azkaban came onto the screen fully-formed and far more realistic than that of Christopher Columbus for the first two Harry Potter films. In Cuarón’s world, Hogwarts felt real, transplanting the almost too perfect Hogwarts from the first two films into a more fitting and beautiful place.
Potter fans will find this film wonderfully familiar in its presentation. The camera rarely, if at all, stops. The entire film is captured on Steadicam. As an example, just remember the beginning of Prisoner of Azkaban, when Aunt Marge arrives and the hustle in the hallway that ensues. In Children of Men, Cuarón uses this approach for almost the entire film, from the most benign look to the most complex action sequences. It is so refreshing to see what Cuarón does with so little. These sequences, like so many in the film, are done in almost entirely single shots and with barely noticeable computer graphics helping. Early in the film, Theo and Julian are attacked as they drive through the countryside. In a single shot, there are hundreds of extras painstakingly choreographed, flaming cars being used as weapons, motorcycle stunts, shattering glass, explosions and people inside of a car reacting. The shot is not cut and there isn't a single shot from outside the car. This perspective makes it utterly harrowing, because not only is it a gripping scene, but it’s the point of view we ourselves would be in should it happen to us.
Presentation and aesthetics aside, the main reason this film will draw you in is its story. Its mere premise is enough to provoke some thought. What would a world be like without the sounds of children's voices? How would you feel if you were part of a dying race with little knowledge as to what brought this about and, even less, as to how to solve it. In this world, playgrounds and school classrooms have become graveyards, their function no longer necessary. Cuarón maintains throughout the feeling that without a future, the present will fall apart.
Cuarón's Academy Award-nominated screenplay (adapted from the P. D. James novel) will drag you in, and not let you go until the last frame. It is such a simple notion, that people will exist after us. When robbed of that, our hope and confidence are extinguished. It's present upon the face of every actor, in the detail of every set. This is a grim world. When hope does burst onto the screen with the arrival of the pregnant woman Kee, we are shown what hope can do when it is reintroduced into a world without any. It can inspire some to amazing feats and reduce others to betrayal and murder.
Like all films, this one has its negative points, though there aren't many. The cutting of this film may have benefited from a few more chops around the end of the first act. That said, this is Academy Award-nominated editing and aside from my slight quibble, the rest is simply wonderful. Also, the distinctive lack of answers to several issues throughout may leave some people more than curious. This is unlike Potter where the answers, if not present, will eventually come.
But for most of you, this film will be one of (if not the most) eye-opening films of the year. When it comes down to it, all films are about their message. Prisoner Of Azkaban was about Harry trying to find his identity. Children of Men is all about hope; how it can be lost and regained and what it will cost. In the end, the message from this film is so heartfelt that you can't help but come away from it feeling moved.
Arata, David, Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, & Timothy J. Sexton (based on the novel by P.D. James). Children of Men. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Universal City: Universal Pictures, 2006.
Kloves, Steven (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling). Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Burbank: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2004.