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Children of Men’ Finds Hope in Desolate World

Rama Gottumukkala | Thursday, January 25, 2007

As a bomb explodes dangerously close to Theo, he grimaces with pain and covers his ears, trying to blot out the excruciating tinny sound that accompanies the blast. But he can’t and neither can we, as director Alfonso Cuarón allows that awful sound to linger for a full minute after the fact.

“You hear that ringing in your ears?” Julian (Julianne Moore), Theo’s ex-wife, asks him after another such explosion. “That’s your ear cells dying. You’ll never be able to hear that frequency again. Enjoy it while you can.”

These horrific sights and sounds pepper the landscape of “Children of Men,” a film that offers a frightening vision of how far a world – perhaps even ours – could plummet toward chaos. Marked by violence and desolation, it’s a dark reality that threatens to shatter the most brittle of humanity’s commodities – hope.

In 2027, mankind is gasping its last breath, struggling in a world where procreation is a distant memory. After all, if women can’t have babies anymore, what else is there to hope for? Indeed, hope seems the most important word in the film as these characters have so little of it.

A former peace activist, Theo (Clive Owen) is resigned to civilization’s inevitable fate. But when Julian enlists Theo’s help, he is faced with guarding a miracle. He is charged with safely transporting Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a young, pregnant black girl, to the scientists of The Human Project. If Kee and her baby live, so too might the rest of humanity.

The promotional material behind “Children of Men” almost shouts a single question: “Why are women infertile?” Cuarón argues that the answer doesn’t matter, and his movie never offers a solution to this seemingly central question. Women stopped having babies 18 years before the opening credits roll. And by the time the end credits roll, that question has gone unanswered.

Instead, what the film does so brilliantly is take us on one man’s odyssey to restore hope to a world that severely lacks it. Far from a traditional high-concept film, viewers are thrown headlong into the second act. It’s an atypical choice that allows Cuarón more time to play in a world that is painstakingly realized.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the film’s Academy Award-nominated cinematography. The camera employed by Cuarón to tell this story is as unstable as the world around it. In one breathtaking segment, we’re thrown headlong into the rubble of a refugee camp. As the angry hiss of machine gun fire, tanks and explosions rock the scenery, Theo scrambles to find Kee in a shot that continues unbroken for nine minutes. Debris falls all around and blood spatters onto the camera surface in an exhausting, masterful segment that mirrors the peril of Theo’s journey.

It’s easy to forget how often Owen has been in front of the camera in the last few years. Since his first major role as a sniper in 2002’s “The Bourne Identity,” Owen has had memorable turns in “Sin City,” “Closer” and “Inside Man.” But here, he is at his very best. He has to portray a fragile character, someone dangerously close to the edge of a precipice that much of mankind has already fallen over. As the heart and soul of the picture, Owen dominates every scene he’s in, which helps because he’s in so many of them.

Hope is one of the two most eagerly sought commodities in cinema, the other being redemption. Characters find hope and lose it all the time. But with “Children of Men,” Cuarón tortures his characters by continually holding it an arm’s length away, seemingly impossible to reach. He keeps it from them for so long, without offering a clear reason why, that when we glimpse it near the film’s end, we finally understand what made Theo suffer after it in the first place.