This is what you go to the movies for: A piece of filmmaking so majestically well-made, so unerringly committed to being what it is, so full of ideas and adrenaline that it makes your mind and heart race. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), Children of Men is the best film of 2006 -- an exciting, powerful and haunting film that mixes our hopeful dreams with our most fearsome nightmares.
Children of Men begins with a bleary-eyed Clive Owen stumbling into a London coffee shop jammed with shell-shocked people staring at the TV: "The world was stunned today by the death of Diego Ricardo, the youngest person on the planet, the youngest person on earth was 18 years, 4 months, 20 days, 16 hours, and 8 minutes old." It's 2027, and -- for reasons no one can understand -- the human race has been collectively, completely infertile for 18 years.
This is just the premise, of course, and Children of Men is no more "about" its sci-fi idea than Moby Dick is "about" fishing. Owen's Theo Faron -- burnt-out, rumpled and perpetually fishing a pint of whisky out of his pockets -- is drinking and thinking his way through a world of horrible strangeness and horrible familiarity. Curarón and his production crew paint the world and its end for us so briskly that we understand that life in 2027 is exactly like life in 2006, but more so: The numb hum of consumerism, the muffled grunts of injustices done in the name of the common good, the shaking shock from the last horrible piece of news, the hunched wait for the next unhappy headline.
It's established, early on, with big exposition and small suggestions, that England may be the only functioning democracy on Earth, or at least the one in the best shape (which is to say bad shape indeed), so all immigrants -- documented or not -- are illegal. Theo is contacted by his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore); Julian's a radical, a rebel, and she's trying to get a refugee to the coast. The refugee will need papers of transit; Theo's cousin has a highly-placed job in the civilized-yet-fascist apparatus of English government. Theo and Julian met as activists, married and were slowly, inexorably shoved apart by cruel chance. Julian's a true believer, but when she needs Theo's help, she knows him well enough to offer him cash for services rendered.
The refugee is Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey). She's 19. She's both brazen and shy. She's also pregnant. Julian wants to get Kee into the hands of The Human Project -- a group of researchers and scientists so secret they may not even exist -- and out of England. The Fishes -- the revolutionary group Julian's part of -- aren't all necessarily in agreement with that plan, but Julian's comrades-in-arms Luke (Chiwitel Ejiofor) and Miriam (Pam Ferris) know what they have to do. (Politically, Children of Men is fascinating -- some have dismissed the film's vision as Mad Max for NPR listeners, but I think it's a little deeper than that. In Children of Men, the fascist state can't keep you safe from the revolution, but neither can the revolution keep you safe from the state.)
There are five credited writers on Children of Men's script, but even without cross-referencing the film against P. D. James's novel, you get the sense that someone along the line boiled Children of Men's screenplay down to the essence of James's novel, and were not afraid to make changes. I hadn't read James's book, and, it seems, neither did Curaron -- he is vehement about the fact that what you see on-screen is from himself and co-writer Tim Sexton. I sought out Children of Men in print after seeing the film, and the table of contents alone makes it clear that the filmmakers were not shy about changes -- the book's chapters are listed across a time frame of months, while the movie takes place over a feverish three or four-day period, and the book's much more pulpy than the film -- Theo's cousin in the book is not a high-level functionary, but England's benevolent dictator. Much of Children of Men feels like other movies -- with a plot revolving around letters of transit and a protagonist who's no good at being noble, the ghost of Casablanca hovers over the film almost as persistently as the specter of George Orwell -- but never in a clammy or cheap way. At the same time, every scene and shot in Children of Men is so expressive and inventive that the total film never feels recycled or rote. A car ride goes from uneasy silence to laughter to shrieking terror -- and you're so caught up in it you almost don't notice that it's crafted as a single shot. (It isn't, of course, but the technique and effects used to create that illusion are almost invisible -- Children of Men is definitely one of the best-directed films of the past decade, judged in terms of technique meshing with topic and theme.)
The performances are all first-rate, from Michael Caine's aging hippie -- or, rather, aging Gen-X-er -- who plays golden oldies like Radiohead at top volume to Ejiofor's charismatic and cunning Luke. Ashtiey is also excellent -- Kee isn't just a plot device, but at the same time, the movie never fails to impress the import of her pregnancy on us, and Kee is drawn with a humor and decency that Ashitey brings to life in small, finely-wrought moments. Owen's performance is, however, a revelation: Theo's silences speak as loud as words, and his words have the sting of gallows humor and wounded cynicism.
The quest to reach the coast takes Theo and Kee to a refugee camp, and the stage is set for the film's finale -- a scene of gripping urban warfare that feels as real as a gutshot. As The Fishes clash with government troops, Theo and Kee are just trying to get out -- along with her newborn baby. As Kee and Theo inch past armed mobs, bullets flying all about them, combatants and bystanders are all transfixed by the sight, and sound, of a child -- and the shooting stops. This is how Children of Men breaks your heart: By showing you a world where the presence of a child is so important that it can end battles because that child must not be hurt. And you imagine if every war were like that -- in Iraq, in Chechnya, in Dafur, in our own communities -- and you weep because you know that they are not. Wandering the ruined halls of an abandoned school, Miriam observes that it's " ...Very odd, what happens in a world without children's voices. ..." We have the sound of children's voices, but do we truly hear them right here and now? Children of Men is full of bravura bravery and technical mastery, but what makes it moving is a rare combinations -- an understanding of the life-or-death stakes of modern existence, and an unflinching refusal to look away from the equally terrifying possibilities of our damnation or our deliverance.