Lion (2017)

★★★

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Lion - Sunny Pawar

To unfurl my best impression of a sports commentator, Lion is, broadly speaking, a film of two halves. But unlike the insinuation invoked by said metaphor, these are two halves of consistent quality. There is no playing badly and then coming on to a game, or any downward spiral in fortune as the final minutes approach: It’s good and bad, and then it’s good and bad. Rather, the deviating halves come via a drastic change of scenery, of personnel and, in some ways, of mood. The first introduces us to young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), their days spent scavenging adroitly in an effort to return home with milk and, presumably, other rations. They live in small, poor Indian village with their mother and sister, the former feeding her family by carrying rocks.

This might paint a picture of struggle, and there is struggle, but for around 20 minutes the screen is awash with sibling camaraderie, Saroo’s adorable willingness to put a shift in for the cause only matched in merit by Guddu’s unassailable duty of care. Plucked from obscurity — in Pawar’s case, an audition at school — the pair of young actors beam with authenticity in both their relationship on-screen and their presence in a sustenance-centric world. Like Room’s Jacob Tremblay, Sunny Pawar defies his inexperience and excels, possibly because said inexperience hasn’t yet afforded him the capacity to knowingly perform, and thus perform poorly. Instead we see the real kid, a bundle of energy and charisma, arms pumping like Usain Bolt on an Olympic track whenever he sprints to the next scavenging destination.

This sweetness sours when Guddu fails to return from a work shift, leaving Saroo stranded on a train bound for some faraway metropolis. Garth Davis’ film loses a bit of momentum as Saroo stumbles from locale to locale — the narrative gets stuck on a repetitive loop, compounding Saroo’s lost predicament beyond necessity. There is refuge in a tunnel with other lost children, a sleepover with a seemingly conscientious woman, and more, each encounter conveying the same message of volatility. You actually get enough of a sense of just how much trouble Saroo is in via Greig Fraser’s cinematography, which captures the vastness of an unknown landscape: car lights, train lights, street lights enmeshed in tightly packed, busy urban spheres and swamped externally by a sea of barren nature.

The film refocuses upon reaching Australia, Saroo’s new home, the youngster having been adopted by locals Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). We only spend a moment more in little Pawar’s company before Dev Patel takes over, playing an older Saroo on the cusp of hotel management study. This is also the point at which we meet Lucy (Rooney Mara), a fellow student and Saroo’s impending girlfriend. The actors have a chemistry that helps them work around their rapid-fire romance, and Mara in particular does well with insufficient screen time. She projects tender authority, determined to support Saroo but not defined by his quest to locate his family via Google Earth.

The Australia half, though for the most part engaging, stumbles with well-meaning intent. It tries to pitch itself as a multicultural reprieve, but somewhat loses sight of that in its postcolonial attempt to redress the prevailing Hollywood imbalance. Rather than spending time with birth mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose), Luke Davies’ screenplay privileges Sue’s emotional journey. She has a hard time dealing with Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), whom she and John adopted shortly after Saroo and who has failed to adapt to life following a turbulent childhood. Her appearances are bitty, not all-encompassing, but the notion that the Australian mother should command most of our sympathy doesn’t sit right with the film’s otherwise progressive platform. Indeed, the issue is captured in a scene where an emotionally wrought Sue laments the state of her family, speaking about a vision she had in her younger years that convinced her to adopt.

After its opening act the piece affords Kamla little screen time, and us little time to develop sufficient compassion for her following Saroo’s disappearance. This also speaks to a larger issue about the level of attention minority actors are afforded in Western cinema, and the consequences a lack of satisfactory attention can incur: Kidman has been nominated for an Oscar, whereas the likely equally talented Bose has not. I should note though that, to both Davis and Davies’ credit, life in Australia is far from glorified. Family tensions are at the fore, tensions in part generated by Saroo’s unwillingness to confide in Sue and John about his mission to find his birth mother. Patel particularly excels during these sequences of inner turmoil and we feel the weight of his character’s struggle.

Matching the fervour of a late winning goal (this sports metaphor should never have made it past the opening line; I can only apologise) Lion evokes a plume of bittersweet emotion as it reaches its conclusion. The moment makes the journey worthwhile, even if we, like Saroo, have had to navigate rugged terrain in order to get there.

Lion - Dev Patel

Director: Garth Davis

Rating: PG

Runtime: 1h 58mins

Genre: Drama

Starring: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman

Images ©: The Weinstein Company

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

★★★★

The Girl with All the Gifts PosterDirector: Colm McCarthy

Release Date: September 23rd, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Horror; Thriller

Starring: Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Glenn Close

Kids are taking over the world. Well, the worlds of pop culture and weighty entertainment. If it’s not a bunch of Spielbergian curiousos charming viewers eight times over in Stranger Things, it’s Jacob Tremblay comfortably matching his demonstrably more experienced counterparts with a powerhouse performance in Room. Today Sennia Nanua joins the not-so-Mickey-Mouse-Club, her turn as a next generation zombie-human in The Girl with All the Gifts at once endearing and domineering. And even a little amusing. That’s quite the trifecta.

Colm McCarthy brings M.R. Carey’s (credited as Mike Carey) mid-apocalyptic world to the silver screen, a world severely stunted by some sort of biological doomsday. Carey’s novel of the same name garnered much praise, which, when coupled alongside his extensive comic book writing portfolio, suggests he is doing something right. The penman may yet want to consider a screenwriting career if this is his default standard. He presents Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a child with fleshy cravings and the ability to interact as normal. When we first meet her she is hidden away in some sort of military base with many of her kind — her ‘classmates’ — and a selection of adult soldiers, scientists, and teachers. It’s not initially clear what the purpose of the locale is: a zone of Freudian experimentation usurping social and ethical norms, or a shelter from the horrors outside?

We quickly learn it is a bit of both, though the striking image of children wearing orange jumpsuits and strapped to wheelchairs feeds the former narrative (these sequences are probably not unintentionally dissimilar in a visual sense to familiar scenes in A Clockwork Orange). That it soon becomes clear said treatment is decidedly less harsh than what is going on elsewhere ought to give you an indication of the type of material we are dealing with. I hesitate to reveal more of the initial plot; not because doing so would spoil the film but because piecing together the early moral dilemmas as they play out on-screen is both a challenging and rewarding experience. Needless to say the setting soon changes and The Girl with All the Gifts transforms into a Monsters-esque road trip.

But back to Melanie, the film’s central presence. She is essentially a blank slate, or a dry sponge for lack of a better description, in that she desires knowledge as well as body parts and absorbs information with incredible endurance. Her favourite teacher is Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), a sort of Miss Honey figure who brightens up their bleak bunker home inhabited otherwise by those who refer to the children as “abortions” and treat them with contempt bred, perhaps understandably, from wariness. This attitude prevails throughout the film to varying degrees, some characters afraid but sympathetic, others driven solely by the scientific possibilities the zom-kids present. Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) is one of the latter, a medical professional who sees Melanie not as a human being but as a resource and a pathway to a potential cure. “They present as children, you know my opinion on that,” she insists. Emphasis on “present”.

Close excels as a pseudo-antagonist, stirring intentions born out of necessity rather than anything particularly sinister. Caldwell only dons the antagonist role because Carey’s writing characterises Melanie not as a resource but as an innocent child, his characterisation authenticated by Nanua’s poise. We feel compelled to side with Melanie because we can relate to her kindness and her appearance. Caldwell feels compelled to do her duty as a scientist in an endangered world running out of scientific solutions, which isn’t evil per se. Whenever zombies are involved comparisons with The Walking Dead are inevitable, but whereas that show has adopted a broadly romanticised us-versus-them approach, this feels more arduous, moral implications blurrier. It’s interesting precisely because there is no clear answer.

This world has seen the worst and now exists in a state of post-shock where terror no longer marinates. Now is the time for practicality, a mindset embodied by Caldwell: without hesitation she investigates the contents of a pram being pushed by a ‘hungry’ — an actual zombie, brainless — not put off by danger but rather spurred on by “gathering data, which is part of [her] mission statement”. Justineau, meanwhile, is clearly more concerned about the welfare of Melanie than her own, apparently consigned to whatever fate lies ahead. Arterton has the emotional burden to carry, her frequently exhausted expression not a consequence of physical exertion (she is more than capable in the field) but of her problematic attachment to Melanie.

The piece hits some of the usual genre beats but does so with enough quality to sustain a level of intrigue. We’ve witnessed the basic premise play out in films such as 28 Days Later and World War Z and, just like in those films, military personnel have a hand in proceedings here. What separates The Girl with All the Gifts from the pack, though, is its almost subliminal tone of humour. It’s an understated lightheartedness that feels genuine in a broken society already acclimatised to its brokenness. At one point Melanie, having just fed on some animals, blood tattooed onto her face, jovially reveals she is no longer hungry and the others can only look on in a collective state of horrified discombobulation. Paddy Considine’s Sgt. Eddie Parks benefits most from the humorous touch, able to escape an incoming hard-man caricature and develop into a rounded figure.

For those seeking the usual zombie fare, The Girl with All the Gifts has you covered. It’s as bloody and gory and gnarly as it is thought-provoking. Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score spans the mood spectrum, incurring a feeling of discomfort with invasive brass entries. I was reminded of Shutter Island’s brooding soundtrack. With air raid sirens fulfilling the threat-based requirements, the sounds of trees swishing harmoniously and birds gently humming reflect the film’s thoughtful mantra. Nature, too, is character, sparse streets having been attacked by overgrown greenery, turning South East England into Pripyat, Ukraine. McCarthy’s film makes brilliant use of its £4 million production budget, and is well worth the price of admission.

The Girl with All the Gifts - Sennia Nanua

Images credit: IMP AwardsThe Guardian

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Oscars 2016 — Final Predictions

Oscars 2016

Another year, another highfalutin awards season (we love it really) culminating in an Academy Awards ceremony blighted by controversy. Despite the perceived change in acceptance and diversity — 2015 welcomed same-sex marriage legalisation, for instance — Hollywood, it seems, is struggling to keep up. Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs declared a plan to usher in urgent change, though chances are the Oscars’ lack of diversity is a consequence of a grander Hollywood problem as opposed to the definitive headache.

I digress. We have what we have and, in fairness, this year’s nominee crop is a good one. On a personal level, I enjoyed all of the films up for Best Picture, some pretty significantly. The women are top of the acting class having smashed their male counterparts to performing pieces, and in a Streep-less year too. Only one of the five directors up for a statuette has been nominated before, and Rocky Balboa’s back after a 40-year break. Alright, let’s get on with it.

I’ve watched more of the crop than ever before this time around, but as circumstance would have it I still have a few blind spots. The categories below the break host films I haven’t seen for various reasons (mainly the UK release schedule — disappointingly, many of the foreign language nominees are not yet out over here), however I’ve still made a prediction in those categories, for the sake of completion if nothing else.

Click links for reviews.

 

Best Picture

The Big Short

Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Room

Spotlight

— Will win: The Revenant

— Should win: Mad Max: Fury Road

— Should’ve been nominated: Girlhood, SicarioStraight Outta Compton

The Revenant, Spotlight and The Big Short have been jostling for the number one spot throughout this awards season, with each film taking home at least one main prize (critics have favoured Spotlight and producers The Big Short). The Revenant, meanwhile, seems to have cleared the pack following its victories at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, though this one could still go any way. It should go to either Mad Max: Fury Road for its sublime achievement against all odds, or to Room for its sheer emotional devastation.

 

Best Director

Lenny Abrahamson (Room)

Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant)

Tom McCarthy (Spotlight)

Adam McKay (The Big Short)

George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)

— Will win: Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant)

— Should win: George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)

— Should’ve been nominated: Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies)

Iñárritu has all of the momentum as well the admiration of the Academy, who rewarded him last year with Best Director and Picture wins over Richard Linklater and Boyhood (grrr). And with no clear, solitary challenger, it looks like a similar scenario will play out again this year. George Miller could be in the running though, and he should be given his stunning all-round effort on Mad Max: Fury Road. The Aussie has a significantly better chance of winning in this category than the one above.

 

Best Actor

Bryan Cranston (Trumbo)

Matt Damon (The Martian)

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs)

Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl)

— Will win: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

— Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

— Should’ve been nominated: Jacob Tremblay (Room)Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton)

Okay. It is not his best performance; there are times it mightn’t even be a performance. He should have won for one of The Aviator, Django Unchained or The Wolf of Wall Street. And sure, the end-of-days narrative peddled throughout his campaign has jumped from barely-worth-considering to head-rollingly-cliché. But of the five fighting for Best Actor, nobody is better than Leonardo DiCaprio. Fassbender comes close as Steve Jobs, but that’s it. The Academy will see this as righting a wrong — it’s DiCaprio’s year.

 

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett (Carol)

Brie Larson (Room)

Jennifer Lawrence (Joy)

Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)

Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)

— Will win: Brie Larson (Room)

— Should win: Brie Larson (Room)

— Should’ve been nominated: Emily Blunt (Sicario)

Jennifer Lawrence elevates Joy far beyond the limits set by its messy underbelly, and Blanchett and Rampling both offer subtle, powerful performances. But this one, rightly, will go to either Brie Larson or Saoirse Ronan. It’ll almost certainly be the former given her numerous wins on the circuit — Larson’s showing in Room is probably the best of the year, pained and hopeful in equal measure — though a victory for the wonderful-in-Brooklyn Ronan would be just as pleasing.

 

Best Supporting Actor

Christian Bale (The Big Short)

Tom Hardy (The Revenant)

Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight)

Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)

Sylvester Stallone (Creed)

— Will win: Sylvester Stallone (Creed)

— Should win: Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)

— Should’ve been nominated: Benicio Del Toro (Sicario)

Though Rylance entered the season as the likely winner here, Stallone seems to have gained increasing momentum since his win at the Golden Globes. I think Tom Hardy’s performance has been undervalued, and Ruffalo too is terrific in Spotlight. Come to think of it, this is probably a stronger category than it has perhaps been given credit for. The award could go to Stallone or Rylance. I’d be happy with either.

 

Best Supporting Actress

Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)

Rooney Mara (Carol)

Rachel McAdams (Spotlight)

Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl)

Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs)

— Will win: Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl)

— Should win: Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)

— Should’ve been nominated: Fiona Glascott (Brooklyn)

Competitiveness is key in the Best Supporting Actress section, arguably the toughest of the bunch to call. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a massive outsider here despite her maniacal excellence in The Hateful Eight, and McAdams’ chances are even lower (though she is great too). Winslet is back in the race following her BAFTA win and her grounded performance in Steve Jobs would be worthy most other years. Rooney Mara is the lead in Carol, she’s in the wrong category. I’ll go for Vikander, who steals the show in The Danish Girl.

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Big Short (Adam McKay, Charles Randolph)

Brooklyn (Nick Hornby)

Carol (Phyllis Nagy)

The Martian (Drew Goddard)

Room (Emma Donoghue)

— Will win: The Big Short (Adam McKay, Charles Randolph)

— Should win: Room (Emma Donoghue)

— Should’ve been nominated: Steve Jobs (Aaron Sorkin)

When I sat down to watch Room, one of the last things on my mind was Emma Donoghue’s screenplay. Not because I expected little from the novelist-turned-screenwriter, but because the buzz surrounding the film had mainly been for its two central performances and Lenny Abrahamson’s deft direction. But Donoghue’s adaptation of her own work is careful and stunning, truly. The Big Short will probably win here given its wit and snap (some very good wit and snap too), but it’d be nice to see Donoghue take the trophy.

 

Best Original Screenplay

Bridge of Spies (Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)

Ex Machina (Alex Garland)

Inside Out (Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Ronnie del Carmen)

Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer)

Straight Outta Compton (Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus)

— Will win: Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer)

— Should win: Ex Machina (Alex Garland)

— Should’ve been nominated: The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)

Any of the above could conceivably win with justification: the Coens’ sly influence over Bridge of Spies is noticeable and welcome; Inside Out thrives upon words carefully constructed and beautifully relayed; McCarthy and Singer’s steely determination to shine a light upon good reporting works because their script allows it; and the seemingly written-by-committee Straight Outta Compton fizzes with authenticity. But I’m rooting for Alex Garland’s Ex Machina screenplay, a smashingly construed, tense, and insightful piece of writing.

 

Best Documentary — Feature

Amy

Cartel Land

The Look of Silence

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

— Will win: The Look of Silence

— Should win: The Look of Silence

— Should’ve been nominated: N/A

Joshua Oppenheimer’s shocking Act of Killing should have won in 2014. Amy and Cartel Land are probably the more obvious choices facing the Academy, but I’m going to put my (perhaps misguided) faith in voters to pick Oppenheimer’s Act of Killing follow-up, the less striking but still wholly compelling and defiantly brave Look of Silence.

 

Best Cinematography

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Sicario

— Will win: The Revenant

— Should win: Sicario

— Should’ve been nominated: Slow West

Roger Deakins is long overdue Oscar-shaped recognition having received 13 nominations with no return, and Sicario should be the conduit for that eventuality. This is another strong category; any of the five could win with justification — Robert Richardson captures the claustrophobic egomania of Minnie’s Haberdashery, John Seale the muscular aplomb of a post-apocalyptic desert-scape, and Ed Lachman the crackling romance of 1950s New York. Emmanuel Lubezki looks destined to claim the award for the third year running though, which would be a cinematography record.

 

Best Visual Effects

Ex Machina

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Should win: Mad Max: Fury Road

— Should’ve been nominated: The Walk

Much has been made of George Miller’s desire to be as practical on set as possible, and when the result is as good as Mad Max: Fury Road, that desire ought to be rewarded. A word too for the visual effects team on Ex Machina, whose budget would have been significantly lower than those of their category compatriots, yet whose end product is futuristic, uncanny, and effortlessly employed.

 

Best Film Editing

The Big Short

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Spotlight

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: The Big Short

— Should win: Spotlight

— Should’ve been nominated: Straight Outta Compton

Mark Kermode talks about the key to a great editing job being its undetectability. You should be so wrapped up in the content that cuts should play naturally, and to an extent that is a fair assessment. I would challenge his assertion when it comes to The Big Short though, a film which is so furiously edited by Hank Corwin you are supposed to take notice (this rapidness fits the crazed culture of Wall Street). Having said that, I’m pulling for Tom McArdle’s considered work in Spotlight.

 

Best Production Design

Bridge of Spies

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

— Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road

— Should win: Bridge of Spies

— Should’ve been nominated: The Hateful Eight

One of the most endearing and successful things about Bridge of Spies is how the film pits an internally bubbling United States against an externally fractured East Germany. Much of that has to do with the Cold War climate drawn up by the production design team: you feel the domestic, retro anxieties of the US, and then you really feel the frostiness of Germany. Plus, Mark Rylance tinkering with magnificently integrated espionage devices? Come on.

 

Best Costume Design

Carol

Cinderella

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

— Will win: Carol

— Should win: Carol

— Should’ve been nominated: Crimson Peak

Sandy Powell is up against herself here, though her chances for Carol probably carry more weight than her chances for Cinderella. Unlike the production design in The Danish Girl, the film’s costume design is interminably fitting: at times bombastic, at times reserved, always representative of the time period. Having said that, I really like Powell’s work in Carol and Jenny Beavan’s efforts in Mad Max: Fury Road, so a win for either of those would suit me.

 

Best Original Score

Bridge of Spies

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: The Hateful Eight

— Should win: Bridge of Spies

— Should’ve been nominated: Macbeth

Since it’s his first western score since the 1980s (not to mention the first original score in a Tarantino flick), chances are Ennio Morricone will take home the bacon here. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s piercing, unsettling Sicario sound is a real masterstroke and would justify a win, though my favourite of the five is Thomas Newman’s score for Bridge of Spies. It flirts tremendously between Saving Private Ryan’s brassy grandness and a number of beautiful, touching piano melodies.

 

Best Original Song

“Earned It” (Fifty Shades of Grey)

“Manta Ray” (Racing Extinction)

“Simple Song #3” (Youth)

“Til It Happens to You” (The Hunting Ground)

“Writing’s on the Wall” (Spectre)

— Will win: “Til It Happens to You” (The Hunting Ground)

— Should win: “Manta Ray” (Racing Extinction)

— Should’ve been nominated: N/A

I quite like “Manta Ray”, but y’know, it’s Gaga and the Oscars.

 

Best Sound Editing

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: Sicario

— Should win: Sicario

— Should’ve been nominated: Everest

As mentioned above, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score in Sicario is a beauty, though it is complemented and enhanced by some gritty, punchy sound editing (I’m reliably informed editing refers to the seeking out or creation of various sound recordings, such as gunfire or general dialogue, whereas mixing involves finding the correct combination of all sound elements within a film).

 

Best Sound Mixing

Bridge of Spies

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road

— Should win: Bridge of Spies

— Should’ve been nominated: Sicario

I’m surprised Sicario hasn’t been nominated again in this category. Given mixing incorporates all sound elements, I feel compelled to root for Bridge of Spies.

 


 

Best Animated Feature Film

Anomalisa

Boy & the World

Inside Out

Shaun the Sheep Movie

When Marnie Was There

— Will win: Inside Out

 

Best Foreign Language Film

A War (Denmark)

Embrace of the Serpent (Columbia)

Mustang (France)

Son of Saul (Hungary)

Theeb (Jordan)

— Will win: Son of Saul (Hungary)

 

Best Documentary — Short Subject

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness

Body Team 12

Chau, Beyond the Lines

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah

Last Day of Freedom

— Will win: Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah

 

Best Live Action Short Film

Ave Maria

Day One

Everything Will Be Okay

Shok

Stutterer

— Will win: Day One

 

Best Animated Short Film

Bear Story

Prologue

Sanjay’s Super Team

We Can’t Live Without Cosmos

World of Tomorrow

— Will win: World of Tomorrow

 

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

— Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road

 

Oscars 2016 - Best Picture

Images credit: ScreenScoopVariety

Room (2016)

★★★★★

Room PosterDirector: Lenny Abrahamson

Release Date: January 15th, 2016 (UK); January 22nd, 2016 (US)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay

Room is a beautiful film. It’s heartbreaking and humorous and touching. It is fearless, it is personal, it is real. It’s also difficult to discuss without making reference to at least one crucial plot point. If you have seen the trailer, you’ll know which reveal I’m alluding to and will hopefully stick around for the subsequent discussion. Otherwise, it would be best to see the film without any prior knowledge and then revisit this review thereafter. Should you choose to do that, just know you are about to see one of the best movies of the year.

It follows young mother Joy (Brie Larson) who has spent years trapped in a grimy shed alongside her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Jack only knows the shed, christened Room, having been born there. He believes Room is the whole world; she knows it is not. They survive on amenities provided by their captor Old Nick (Sean Bridger) and have a few other basic items such as a bath and a television. “TV persons are flat and made of colours,” Jack marvels, exemplifying his troubling lack of knowledge breadth. He also refers to the toilet as “Toilet” and the lamp as “Lamp”, these inanimate objects having taken on the role of living organisms.

We feel part of Jack’s imagined landscape, its closed-in vastness, established through impeccable production design and crafty cinematography. Mouldy utensils bear foodstuffs that arrive via magic (since Jack is unaware of the outside world, he believes Old Nick’s existence is bred from some sort of sorcery) and stains flood the floor — a large mess near the bed is probably the spot Joy gave birth. Danny Cohen rarely, if ever, captures the entirety of Room in one shot, instead segmenting the area into various micro-locales (the bed, the wardrobe, the kitchen) and this gives off a false sense of capacity. However, when Room feels too falsely spacious, Cohen re-establishes its compactness by intimately honing in on Joy and Jack’s faces.

Joy does everything in her power to shield Jack from Old Nick. Whereas she must grapple with daily pain, her son innocently sees light in abject darkness: “Ma, I’m a dragon,” he exclaims when a lack of powered heating grants him icy breath. Fairy tales have clearly influenced the youngster — Alice in Wonderland and the Biblical fable of Samson are invoked — and these stories take on an even grander meaning given the horrendously isolated context within which they are told. Like his previous film, Frank, this newest offering from Lenny Abrahamson champions the power of imagination; such interactions between mother and son offer fleeting moments of relief, further compounded by the duo’s genuine chemistry.

For someone whose only other screen credit is Smurf’s 2, Jacob Tremblay carries a sense of timing that consistently threatens perfection. His actions reverberate with such authenticity, both in instances of thoughtful restraint and in outbursts brought on by his inability to understand his mother’s truth-telling. The young star’s facial performance is particularly strong: Tremblay is always present and never at all disconnected from the film’s envisioned reality. Hey, you ask for one endearing child performance and then two come along at once — Noah Wiseman is similarly effective in The Babadook, another mother-son tale spun via horror. There is also Ellar Coltrane’s turn in the early parts of Boyhood. So that’s three.

Though fun, awards are far from the definitive benchmarks of quality, therefore to speak of them in such terms is frivolous and, truthfully, a bit demeaning. But I would be doing honesty a disservice if I did not declare my readiness to anoint Brie Larson Best Actress by the 10-minute mark. You instantly see Joy’s exhaustion and feel as though you know her story. Larsen maintains a hunched posture and rolls her eyes with such desperation in the wake of Jack’s childish behaviour. Jack is unaware of the somewhat natural order his mother is trying to uphold (baking a birthday cake, exercising on a frequent basis), which only serves to stab at Joy’s sanity a pinch more.

See, the natural order has been flipped and tortured. Jack’s safe haven is a dark wardrobe, a place we normally associate with childhood fear. Such complexity calls for a smart, concise screenplay and Emma Donoghue answers, exploring reality and surreality with magnificent poise. Given Donoghue has adapted her own novel, such a deep understanding is unsurprising. Her use of words is something to behold; Joy quickly corrects “room” to “space” when referring to Room’s lack of physical area — to Jack, the word “room” means the entire universe, an improper definition that completely undermines Joy’s point. Verbal unpackings such as this further fund Joy’s helplessness, but they also embolden her love for Jack. She is willing to adapt to surreality in spite of her mental anguish.

We do get that exhilarating, terrifying escape sequence and it concludes with a powerfully moving embrace between mother and son, a moment of raw emotional discharge worthy, I think, of any motion picture. The aesthetic thereafter reflects Jack’s disorientation in his new world and Abrahamson takes almost as much time to acclimatise as his young protagonist: lights shine with a confusing haze; movements are jerky; noises are amplified beyond proportion. We patiently watch as Jack tests these new waters and, quite incredibly, it’s a delight: considering we are over halfway through by this point, to watch a character complete rudimentary tasks like walking downstairs and for the film to remain engaging is a testament to the Donoghue’s rich writing.

Without expunging any more detail than necessary, a degree of darkness stalks mother and son into the real world. The film goes to a place that less assured outings would almost certainly have avoided and should be commended for doing so. It is worth noting Joan Allen’s beautifully delicate turn as Joy’s mother, Nancy, opposite Larson and Tremblay — there is so much to admire about Abrahamson’s piece but these central performances ultimately hold the key to its success. Forget saccharine, this is a film thoroughly teeming with earned emotion. Room, at times, floored me.

Room - Brie Larson &; Jacob Tremblay

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): A24