Done by Mirrors
If free market is perfectly natural,
Or do you think that I’m some kind of dummy?
It’s the ideal way to order the world.
“Fuck the morals, does it make any money?”
And if you don’t like it, then leave,
Or use your right to protest on the street.
—Jarvis Cocker, “Cunts Are Running the World”
Children of Men begins with a TV news report. A crowd has gathered in a coffee shop to listen, their gazes on the TV set bolted to a wall above the counter. Outside, the street is littered and grey. Inside, viewers learn that “Baby Diego” has been shot, his death news because he was the youngest person on the planet. As the reporter intones, “Diego was 18 years, 4 months, 20 days, 16 hours, and 8 minutes old,” a celebrity by virtue of his strangeness, that is, his youth.
The TV version of this tragedy is a fiercely apt introduction to the dilemma facing survivors in Alfonso Cuarón’s film. Rendered in an oblique, catchy-graphics sort of way, the story speaks to viewers as survivors. It’s 2027, and an unexplained but easily imaginable devastation has left humans unable to reproduce. (The short version has it that women are “infertile,” with nothing said of men’s biologies.) The “Siege of Seattle” is into its 1000th day, British borders have been closed for eight years, with illegal aliens systematically deported every day. The news of Diego’s death brings tears to the eyes of watchers all over the world, as the film offers glimpses of a global non-village full of turmoil: Paris Moscow London Washington DC Kuala Lampur Tokyo Berlin Jakarta New York Stockholm Rome Shanghai Atlanta. “The world,” proclaims the reporter, “has collapsed.”
A self-declared disinterested observer, Theo (magnificent Clive Owen) gets his coffee and leaves the shop, only to be pelted with debris as yet another explosion rocks the street. London’s a war zone, as refugees fill barbed-wired camps, barely underground rebels resist government crackdowns, and willfully ignorant citizens struggle only to survive. Lamenting the immigrants’ plight, Theo’s best friend Jasper (Michael Caine) says, “Our government cuts ‘em down like cockroaches.” He embodies Theo’s lost hope, being a long-haired former “Political Cartoonist of the Year 2010” who keeps a “Don’t Attack Iraq” flyer among his mementoes. He and his wife (a former photojournalist now rendered immobile and mute) live off in the bleak countryside with their dog, their home a respite for Theo, who hears out Jasper’s rants and smokes his ganja.
As expected, Theo’s efforts to remain apart are soon thwarted, a shift presaged by his ride home on a train that’s pelted by kids throwing stones and clods of dirt, angry at everything. Billboards whoosh past in the window (“Avoiding Fertility Tests is a Crime”), alongside graffiti (“Last one to die please turn out the light”). Also predictably, Theo’s transformation into “reluctant hero” is embodied by women. First, his ex, now rebel leader, Julian (Julianne Moore), appears in a burst of violence and secrecy, her ski-masked cohorts grabbing Theo off the street and depositing him in a seeming interrogation room, all wide angles and portentous close ups. She introduces Theo to Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), an immigrant in need of escort and transport papers so she might reach the legendary, super secret Human Project, a rebel outpost Theo’s never seen (someone explains that communication with the Project is “done by mirrors,” with no one directly speaking to anyone else).
The impetus here is Kee’s pregnancy, a condition that makes her an object of some value for various forces. With her swollen belly revealed to Theo in a barn, carefully lit and encircled by mooing cows, she appears an obvious allegorical figure (as Theo gasps, “Jesus Christ!”). She’s pursued by the earnest rebel Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofior) while she’s mostly surrounded by earnest white folks. An “illegal alien” in England, Kee is inclined to trust in her midwife (Pam Ferris), but also Theo, as he’s been deemed trustworthy by Julian. Their relationship—Theo and Kee’s—is shaped by a number of complexities, not least being his own knowledge of birth and babies, having been through it with Julian (their dead child being a source of some cryptic tensions: “It’s hard for me to look at you,” she says, “He had your eyes”).
As Kee both resents and appreciates Theo, his relationship to the “future of mankind” becomes somewhat overwrought. Still, Owen maintains a certain friction in his performance. In part, this effect is a function of Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s much-remarked use of minutes-long single-takes. The urgent-seeming handheld camera presses close in to some of the more galling action (see the already famous car interior scene) and often, barely keeps up with Owen (during one excellent sequence, he ponders briefly when to cross a street besieged by gunfire and grenades, his fingers fluttering as he counts off beats before he takes off: it’s a small, telling gesture, and completely mesmerizing and brilliant). His apparent status as “action hero” is repeatedly undermined by his Deckardish meditations, as he deliberates most every move before he makes it.
Based on P.D. James’ 1992 novel, Children of Men does lapse into some plotty gimmicks: during their journey to the promised land (the Human Project), Kee and Theo encounter a range of unavoidably “colorful” characters, including a military psycho-ruffian (Peter Mullan, as ever, delightful and disturbing) and an eccentric “gypsy,” Marichka (Oana Pellea). The structure is defined by their mobility (as mirrored in the camerawork), but the characters are more effectively delineated in bits and pauses (Theo takes precious moments to say he’s “sorry” while negotiating crowds of frightened, pissed-off, bumped-into people).
Even with so much attention paid to her body and to her child (a street battle comes to a complete, nearly silent halt as the infant is carried from a bombed out building), Kee’s own story becomes secondary to Theo’s, as his loss of hope must be undone and his past redressed. She appears, quite miraculously, as the occasion for his redemption. As much as it is invigorating visually and moving emotionally, the film does turn at last on this familiar device, the damaged white man in need of spiritual and ideological fixing.