Thursday, 21 January 2016

Abramson's ROOM is breathtaking

Jenny on a triumphant adaptation of Donaghue's novel

It’s a long time since I have felt scarcely able to breathe during a tense sequence in a film and even longer since I have actually cried, but I did both during Room, Lenny Abramson’s magnificent rendering of Emma Donaghue’s book for which Donaghue also wrote the screenplay.

The subject evokes squeamishness of all sorts because it involves a five year old boy, Jack, and his young mother, ‘Ma’, being imprisoned in a soundproofed garden shed. The boy’s father is her rapist kidnapper. But it is nothing like the grim brutality of Michael, Markus Schleinzer’s German-language film from 2011 where the emphasis was on the hideous nature and crime of the captor. In fact the perpetrator in Room is seen sparingly and the film denies us the satisfaction of enjoying his eventual punishment.

The film cannot capture the voice of the child as the book does so well, but Danny Cohen’s camera sweeps and swoops, gives us oddly revealing close-ups which suggest that this little boy is stable, functioning well inside his small cell, his mother insisting on regular routines: phys ed, meals, crafts, games and stories, hiding the terrible reason for ‘Old Nick’s’ regular nightly visits, during which Jack must sleep in a slatted wardrobe.

Mother and child are like big and little mirrors of each other – the same chalky white faces and long, androgynous hair, varying only in age and experience. A copy of Alice in Wonderland, their only book, suggests the dream-reality of their existence. Ma knows there is another world, Jack only knows Wonderland which, of course, is not Wonderland at all.

The trailer gives away most of the plot, so we will ignore the no-spoiler rule. ‘Old Nick’ loses his job and ‘Ma’ knows that he will probably kill them if he has to sell his house, so she and Jack must escape. Having convinced him that there is no ‘outside’ she now has to do the opposite and teach him to play an appallingly dangerous part in their escape.

The second act is the escape and I have never seen a more thrilling car sequence in the cinema.

The third act is about how Jack and Ma adjust to the ‘real’ world. Here the film is less successful than the book in its hints at Plato’s cave and what is ‘real’ and what is shadows, the necessity of mother and child separation, the need to accept that good-enough parenting is all that most of us can hope for. At the time of watching I accepted that Jack can become a regular little chap with short hair and a cute smile, cheering up his Mummy. But now – I wonder, would such a smooth transition really be possible?

There is so much good work in this film. First, the casting directors Robin Cook and Fiona Weir: how very skilfully they must have found and chosen Jacob Tremblay to play Jack, a thoroughly natural and touching performance. The production designer, Ethan Tobman has done a wonderful job not just in conveying every inch of the squalor of ‘Room’ but also the hideous primness of the family home, all spotless cream carpets and pretentious gilt furniture. Brie Larson just must win an Oscar for her superb performance: in range alone from passionately devoted mother to out of control tigress to abject depressive she outdoes any other actor I have seen this season.

As for Lenny Abramson, I am in awe of his talent for working with actors who give performances of astonishing depth and subtlety: Pat Shortt in Garage, Jack Reynor in What Richard Did and Michael Fassbender in Frank. He seems to be a director preoccupied and fascinated by situations where his protagonists are right up against closely observed physical or psychological limitations – both in the case of Room. After this triumph he will be a hot director. He will be able to take his pick. Bring it on.