Children of Men
15 CERT, 109 MINS
Dystopian fiction is supposed to betray the fears of the time it is written. Futuristic cartoons drawn in Paris in the 1850s today look quintessentially 1850s; the future as it was imagined then was a world overtaken by steel girders and rivets and Eiffel towers. Sometimes, of course, the tears of a particular time turn out to be more well-founded. George Orwell's 1984, written in 1948, is considered a pretty good vision of the future of Stalinism and that is part of the fun of the genre.
Ideally to review Alfonso Cuardn's latest film. Children of Men, derived from P D James's clystopian 1992 novel and set in a dismal 2027, I need to be writing this in 2035.1 could sigh wisely and point out which bits the film got right and which fears were way off the mark. As it is, we will just have to guess, and use this vision of the future as a looking glass to the present.
The Britain of Children of Men is so grey and so unflinchingly depressing that it is actually a struggle to watch; if your reason for venturing to a cinema is to be entertained and delighted, you can give this one a miss.
Quite suddenly, in 2009, humankind is cursed with universal infertility. Without babies coming into the world, there is no hope and no future, and global civilisation descends into chaos. Britain is ruled by a dictatorship, and because of its relative success in "soldiering on" is inun dated by "fugees" from across the world who are herded up into prison camps and forcibly deported.
The film opens in 2027 with the news that the world's youngest person, an 18year-old by the name of Baby Diego, has been murdered by a fan seeking an autograph. The world is in mourning and flowers are placed, Diana-style, at public monuments everywhere. Theo (a pockmarked Clive Owen) is a bureaucrat in a government department who is suddenly kidnapped by his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), the head of an equalrights terrorist organisation. She needs "exit papers" for an African girl, Kee, to go to Brighton. The girl, miraculously, is pregnant, and it becomes the mission of the film to smuggle her to the "human project", an island of peace where she would be safe.
The film is eerily convincing to look at. The director has taken modern Britain, aged it a bit, and then slowed down the process. There are fun details everywhere, from the newspaper headline of the Beckhams celebrating their golden wedding anniversary (by my counting, shouldn't that be 2049?) to the Indian remixes of 2003 "classic" pop tunes. It is very well filmed, and is never unbelievable. Both the moral and political fears, although as old as the genre, do seem particularly relevant today. Shorn of its fundamental purpose in life (no-one knows why pollution, or radiation?) humanity has lost its way.
Evangelical Christians, convinced that the infertility is God's punishment, urge the world to repent; people go mad; a legal suicide drug "Quietus" is freely available and much advertised: "Choose how you want to go."
The political terror is traditional dystopian stuff (the police state with decadent unelected leaders, Auschwitzstyle images of "fugees" herded into camps) but very 2006 also. Racial tension is the dominant issue in the film, from the fear of Britain being swamped by foreigners (see EU expansion) to the miracle of fertility coming to an African girl, as a kind of revenge on the tyrannous West (see Bob Geldof), to the uprising of "fugees" against an exhausted British Army (see Afghanistan). I liked the wry decision to keep the father of the baby a mystery, not because of divine intervention but because the girl had slept with so many men she had no idea who he was.
ultimately, though, what makes this all bearable (and only just) is the glimmer of hope in the human story. Theo's cynicism, partly due to the death of his son Dylan in the 2008 flu pandemic, is redeemed by his mission to bring Kee to safety. Unlike the terrorist "Fishes", from whom he abducts the girl, Theo has no political agenda other than her survival. I confess that, probably from sheer exhaustion more than anything else, I wept like a child at the final arrival of the baby and the ensuing silence however brief of the guns and violence.
We don't know how much P D James and Alfonso Cuardn have got right in their hellish vision of the future. Perhaps every generation feels that the world is going to pot. But gee, I hope they're wrong.