Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Children of Men: The Review

"Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves,
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves!"

So goes that famous "Rule Britannia" rhyme, THE marching song of arrogant Victorian imperialism.... The smug mantra that drove the sons of greatest empire the world has ever seen,confident that the sun will never set on their rule. Well, the sun did set indeed when a saint from India and later on an evil psycho from Germany challenged Britain, each in his own unique way. And now, the UK is a pitiful poodle state to the United States, a "has-been", an "Aunty" to Uncle Sam, floundering and imploding due to it's three hundred years of bad Karma. (Tsst. This post ain't gonna talk about "Perfidious Albion" or bore you folks with my tirade against them Brits, who I have a MUCHO GRANDE GIGANTIC problem with...... just let me make an introduction on a personal note, wokay?). Given their glorious history and all that jazz, it amuses me, sometimes in a surreal way, whenever I encounter any work of art (movies/music/literature) which portrays a dystopian or even an ugly, defeated England. The first time I enjoyed the perverse delight was when I watched Ian McKellan's Richard III eleven years ago.... I got further doses with Orwell's incomparable "1984", Robert Harris's "Fatherland", Michael Caine's gangster movie "Get Carter", Alan Moore's epic graphic novel "V for Vendetta", Christian Bale's fantasy sci-fi "Reign of Fire"and Alan Moore's recent work, "Albion".
Now a few hours ago I watched Alfonso Cuaron's latest movie, "Children of Men" which came highly recommended by a pal of mine. This film is set in a dystopic Britain (yaaaaaaaaaay!) in a bleak near future where a pandemic obliterates every last child and render mankind totally infertile. Now this is where the similarities to Ms. Phyllis James's original novel effectively ends..... Curaon's contribution is in converting this run of the mill sci-fi into a deep, layered and sensitive work of art. A movie where each shot make us think, if not shock one outright. This time the picture of a bleak, chaotic Britain didn't make me feel ummmmm, delighted; the themes were too painfully obvious, the "possible near future" too close for comfort, the threats and violence depicted too close to home and the shade of the whole world a tad too grey...................

{PS: Possible spoilers and give-aways ahead}


Britain is shown as the "last surviving state" in a world that has fallen apart on Govt. propaganda..... this is actually a tribute to the tyrants of Moore's "V for Vendetta" parotting "England Prevails" in a world that has gone to shit! The hounding up of refugees, derisively called "Fugees", is also similar to Alan Moore's racist Norsefire Govt. in V for Vendetta rounding up every single non-caucasian and sexual-deviants (LGBTs) in Britain into death camps and silently eliminating them all (some of the most disturbing scenes in visual pop-art are found in V for Vendetta, set in the Larkhill death camp). Apparently the rest of world has gone mad with despair and violence and apparently, "Only England stands". Now the image of a Britain standing ALONE in the face of great odds will strike a chord in hearts worldwide given their stoic defiance in the face of seemingly unstoppable German juggernaut...... those two tense years where neither the US nor the USSR was around to fight the Nazis. This epic defense was maintained by a very caring, concerned, efficient and courageous British Government who actively supported and involved their own citizens. Curaon imaginatively twists this motif by depicting a UK which "stands alone" but maintains order by "stamping an iron-heeled boot into the human face.... forever", (as O' Brian puts it in 1984). While that Britain of past acted as a rock of security for the refugees from the French revolution, the Jacobin terror and the German threat, Cuaron's England rounds up anyone who "doesn't have papers" in a manner that would give Yezhov's and Beria's NKVD a complex. He underlines the point by having illegal immigrants packed tight in steel cages and even inserts a surrealy brilliant device by having an old German lady pleading piteously in her cage...... the Holocaust in reverse, anyone? :)

Before I go any further, please don't get me wrong..... I ain't one of those professional bleeding-heart peaceniks/Wagah Candle-Kissers/Indo-Paki bhai-bhai ultraliberal types croaking "make love not war" .......... nor am I an extreme right-winger bitching at Senor Cuaron for "scaremongering" and deriding "homeland security". As I understand it, Cuaron wants his movie to be a mirror of today's societies by extrapolating the fears and the threats faced now, into the near future. Richard Kelly, the talented Trojan who made the ABSOLUTELY MYSTIFYING Donnie Darko tried to do this with "Southland Tales", but falls short in the process (sigh!). Cuaron walks the tightrope between the two extremes with aplomb, presenting a honest take on today's clear and present dangers, viz. Islamic Extremism, the retaliatory extremism it gives birth to and illegal immigration. The sci-fi aspect of loss of infertility and the race to "Shangri-La" is but a McGuffin. I believe that all the race for the cure, the "Human Project" techno-myth is the last thing in Cuaron's mind while making the movie..... What is subtly stressed all throughout the movieare the individual and societal aspects/themes like hope, faith, chance, loyalty, redemption, demagogy, extremism and false messiahs.
Anyway, the film ostensibly points to a future where Enoch Powell's nightmare, an England run over by illegal/legal aliens who have set up a million Bradfordistans have probably "forced" the Govt to crack down on them with extreme prejudice. Mirroring the Brazilian Death-Squad cops method of liquidating EVERY undesirable (including orphan children so that they wouldn't grow up to be another Red Brigade. Anyone seen the true story "City of God"?) or the more famous Neocon/Chickenhawk dictum of "Kill them ALL, and let Allah sort them out later", they descend upon the immigrants mercilessly, kill them or strip, hose, pack them into carts/armored buses and put them in a city that has been converted to a concentration camp. Now, a whole city as a jail ain't no new concept.... Kurt Russel's "Escape from New York" and "Escape from LA" have already fleshed out the ultimate WASP fear-fantasy of minority-crime ridden cities. The morbidly funny thing here is that Curaon chooses a quiet, popular British resort viz. Bexhill-on-Sea as the death-camp city! He turns that beautiful city into a grim, run down, blood-splattered and pock-marked hell-hole reminiscent of Gaza Strip or Sarajevo. To top it all he has an Intifada like uprising in that city with crazed immigrant mobs lustily shouting "Allah Ho Akbar", shooting AK-47s into the air and a British Army and RAF that does obliterates them all a-la Sabra-Shatila..... the final destruction shown on screen as a silent, distant flash of light.

Unlike Moore's "V for Vendetta" there is no hero, no Robin Hood who fights the tyranny. The "liberators" are as scheming, opportunistic and merciless as the ones they are trying to overthrow. Cuaron's message with respect to violent resistance/insurgency/terrorism "to rid their own people from the evil oppressor" cannot be more clear. The peaceful, diplomatic and (rather) non-violent path to emancipation is shown to exist in these groups as just a tiny majority...... a POV that will be silenced by it's own (impatient) "friends" who WILL disagree. A cursory look at all insurgencies around the world shows this to be true.... be it Palestine, Tamil Eelam, Ireland or whatever. (PS: This once again reinforces my understanding (and gratitude) of the grand plan of the Indian National Movement and why we Indians are right here, right now while other similar nations simply laid down and died). Also depicted in the movie are corrupt, profiteers who takes advantage of people's dire misfortunes and great tragedies, be it his/her own people for narrow interests. James Clavell's "King Rat" and Art Spiegelman's "Maus" has excellent specimens from this loathsome genus, the profiteers featured here are as amusing as revoltingly evil.

In spite of all this filth and darkness, there is that last, timid entity Pandora released into this world..... hope. While this is a hope for humanity as a whole, a chance to reboot society without repeating old mistakes, the theme of that sliver of goodness in the individual human heart is conveyed quite touchingly.

{Note: Major Spoilers ahead...}
In the climactic "Bexhill Intifada" battle scene with high-caliber bullets and RPGs flying all around, the long missed cry of an infant draws fighter, traitor and cowering bystander together in a trance. Not minding the bullets cutting into their bodies and felling their near and dear right next to them, the doomed ones reverently adore the first child born in twenty years. Even the hardened soldiers who have stormed the building to kill every living thing on sight stops in their tracks surprised (and relieved) in hearing a baby cry. Former enemies give way so that this symbol of new hope can escape all this carnage; a communications officer ignores the frantic orders in his walkie-talkie, a few soldiers fall to knees praying and a grim Sergeant almost goes into tears.

At this point I was beginning to wonder if Cuaron was stretching the point.... ruining a perfectly good movie at the climax. (Like Mani Ratnam's "Bombay" ending cheesily with rioters across the city hugging and doing a "Hands across India"..... an artificial saccharine-sweet sermon and make-believe that offends history as well as one's intelligence! The cynic and "man of the world" that I am, I almost booed in the theater! What next, Dawood Ibrahim giving a sensuous Thai massage (with "happy ending") to Bal Thackeray as the end credits roll? WTF?!)
Not Alfonso Cuaron! No folks.... definitely not! Just as the protagonists walk away with the baby as the masses numbers of soldiers and insurgents part like the Red Sea before Moses, an RPG rams into the group of soldiers followed by heavy gunfire from the insurgent holdout (where the lead characters had been hiding moments ago)..... Hey, it's business as usual! The soldiers return fire as the protagonists escape and the former use their overwhelming firepower to flatten the building (which contained many women and children by the way). For added insurance, they call in an air strike which is witnessed by the protagonists as they escape. Oh "escape"?! Did I just say escape? Well.... n what did I tell you about hope? :)

Loyalty to one's friends or a higher ideal, courage in the face of the greatest dangers and unbeatable will are the other themes. I have seen some pretty touching death scenes on screen.... from Rakesh Khanna in Namak Haram to Donnie Darko's sacrifice (to the tunes of “Mad World”) to that BEAUTIFUL "Sicilian Scene" in Tarantino's True Romance where Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper palaver to the lifting tunes of the Flower Duet from "Lakme". Yet, Michael Caine's defiant and yet wholly-at-peace sacrifice, the doomed soldiers and insurgents who "adore the baby" in the holdout just before the final carnage resumes, the guide who refuse to accompany the protagonists lest she slow them down.... and finally the last and most redemptive sacrifice of them all are quite inspiring.

As Curaon himself points out, the "seeking yourself road movie" aspect (like his previous, well known Y Tu Mama Tambien) and the Christian Nativity theme are also quite apparent, yet these are not the overriding themes of the movie. The total loss of faith in everything (due to a personal tragedy) is what characterizes the hero while loss of faith in the traditional church depicted by the rising Hindu/Neo-Pagan rituals (some of the main protagonists always chant Sanskrit Mantras and the final credits end with the "Om Shanti... Shanti.... Shanti" mantra). This is contrasted to the self-flagellations of the extremist "hellfire" churches. I expected to see a march of the self-flagellates a-la Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" but Curaon must have deliberately chosen to avoid that iconic and well-known visual. Given the Opus Dei, Tablighi Jamaat and assorted types running around even in these relatively peaceful times, one wouldn't fault Cuaron if he showed something stronger and in-your-face. Yet he wisely decides to concentrate on the more important messages of the movie. (This facet depicts which way human faith could turn if mankind faces a mortal threat.... some lose faith, some dig in deeper while others seek alternate answers. Judaism during the exile and the holocaust is an excellent base reference, but I probably shouldn't go deeper into it here..... maybe another day!)

The performances:

Clive Owen plays the lead character Theo, a former activist turned weary bureaucrat and former husband of Julian (played by Julianne Moore), who is a wanted "enemy of the state". She happens to be the leader of an insurgent group called the "Five Fishes", fighting for immigrant rights among other aims. Moore has only a cameo appearance, but being the veteran actor she is, the character is handled quite competently. Owen is an excellent actor and like George Clooney he sincerely tries to subdue his rugged coolness while playing harried, defeated characters. I must say he does succeed in this attempt! I knew he had it in him when he played the middle class dad hounded by a blackmailer in "Derailed" (now remade in Tamil as "Pachakkili Muttham" by Gautam Menon)... he hasn't let us down this time while playing a lost man in a dark world, trying to redeem himself. The sheer will displayed by his (otherwise "don't give a shit") character on knowing the nature of the task entrusted by his wife and realizing whole humanity's stake in it is laudable. The "ordinary man made into a hero by extraordinary situations" theme is treated competently by both Cuaron and Owen.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is another vastly talented actor roped in by Cuaron.... now this man has one of the kindest faces I have ever seen. The role of a most wronged character in "Dirty Pretty Things" for instance could not be better portrayed by any other actor. However, he has shown his brilliance in playing supremely evil characters... his portrayal of the sadistic Detroit gangland boss in the gritty "Four Brothers" and the fanatical Govt hit man in "Serenity" were quite a revelation. This time he plays Luke, the 2nd in Command of the "Fishes" who ascends to power after Julian goes out of the picture. While Julian is guided by humanistic notions and ideals which transcend politics, Luke is the militant... perhaps an anarchist or an opportunist who who wishes to use the "grail of mankind" for his own political purposes. He disposes off the voices in his organization which call for diplomacy and non-violence and relies on the gun to settle things. The cold, scheming "villainous" nature is hid by a mask of idealism, sincere loyalty and kindness. And perhaps he is not a villain at all, he may have felt the ahimsa marg will not work this time in a Britain gone rabid. Perhaps the people would rally only under his new banner and overthrow the reigning tyranny...... Since a good number from the insurgent group (long time compatriots of Julian) supports his conspiracy, perhaps Luke was right all along. The decision he made with respect to his former leader doesn't entitle him to the "evil usurper" tag methinks..... I for one dunno what turmoil might have reigned in the Mahatma's or Nehru's mind as they led fellow satyagrahis into possible death during the many Satyagrahas.... or for that matter what was going on inside Mian Osama Bin Laden's mind when he decided to assassinate his guru and mentor Abdullah Azam. It's lonely at the top and you have to make such tough decisions all the time.... Luke's final conversation with Theo and the last shot of a wounded Luke fighting the troops makes you wonder what to really think of him. No Karmic retribution for the "villains" nor any gruesome death..... even the murdering albino-psycho (one of the only two true villains in the movie) who hangs out with Luke is not shown getting cut down by Karma's unforgiving scythe. His end is shown as a part of the general climactic carnage, not even an afterthought is given.

A newcomer named Claire-Hope Ashitey plays the young refugee Carribean who carries the "grail of humanity" in her womb. Her portrayal of the foulmouthed, guttural Kee who is quite uncomfortable with the burden which fate cast on her is indicative of serious talent..... the accent she picks up for her role is authentic BTW. Kee's streetwise intelligence and dry humor and the trust she places on Julian and Theo would make her perhaps the best person to look after humanity's last hope in a dystopia like this one.

The incomparable Michael Caine turns away from his established image and plays Jasper, a neo-hippie who was once a celebrated political cartoonist. That phase of life was till Britain ceased being a democracy and turned the state into an oppressor of the people. In fact the IB equivalent of Britain, MI-5 had tortured his wife (once a famous photo-journalist) and turned her into a catatonic wreck...... perhaps for stumbling into some skeletons in the the Govt's closet. Michael Caine played the lead role in the cult 1976 gangster movie "Get Carter", a movie which was pilloried by the lay public and most British critics for it portrayed crime and poverty-ridden East London. the dark side of Britain was perhaps first shown in this movie... remember that the stiffs are very sensitive to this kind of portrayals. Case in point; Brighton Rock, Braveheart, The Patriot, Lagaan and Elizabeth. Each of these were severely criticized by Brits for it showed a side of England they didn't (or could not) accept. Children of Men is shot mostly in East London for this very reason..... Cuaron himself says that this was perhaps the only part of London which ain't a Potemkin Village and is devoid of any "glamor". I wish he had been able to use the "Pakistani Emirate" of Bradford as his chief location instead... I've heard that lawless place is Mullah Omar's wetdream, a real "High Noon in Dodge City". But it wouldn't be politically correct to say that in public.... and British Pakis ain't exactly the Salt of the Earth! Anyway, good ol' Caine is reliable as usual! His portrayal of a man whose services and inputs are not wanted anymore by the current state system (parallels to Orwell's 1984 with Rutherford, the disgraced cartoonist who had ushered in the great revolution?) reduced to peddling narcotics and looking after his catatonic wife is.... bittersweet.

The supporting cast has done a great job...... the murdering young "Fish", the endlessly blabbering Gypsy guide who turns into a real lifesaver, the corrupt cop 'running' the Concentration Camp, the Minister for the Ark of Arts and Miriam, the former OBGYN who escorts Kee are all well etched characters played competently by the ensemble cast. The Minister is an especially amusing and thought provoking character; was that cynicism at it's pinnacle or was it some kind of suppressed, warped hope..... or was it a fond wish that humanity's greatest creations would survive all the death and madness?

The overall movie:

The soundtrack is perhaps the best, well at least the most apt one I have seen in recent times. Some of the tunes are quite familiar and progressive rock is used liberally. I recognized some popular classical compositions too..... there is no underlying theme to the soundtracks like you have in "Donnie Darko", LOTR" or "Walk the Line" but it perfectly mirrors the many themes and threads in the story. The original score refers to the nativity theme of Mary-Joseph and Jesus, and it was apparently made so following Cuaron's explicit request.
Cinematography, costumes and editing is remarkable..... it IS a Britain gone to shit! Britain is a fascist tyranny down to the immigration officers brandishing truncheons, fearsome hunting dogs and assault rifles! This world ain't the antiseptic, plastic dystopia of V for Vendetta and it closely follows the imagery of "Blade Runner", "Brazil" and "Soylent Green". The sad, grim atmosphere is reminiscent to the dust bowls of Soylent Green, the merciless British Govt is somewhat modelled on the surreal nightmare that was depicted in Gilliam's "Brazil", while the futuristic aspects are influenced by Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" and the amazing "Gattaca". Unlike "Paradise Now" which has trace amounts of psy-ops showing Israelis as distant, emotionless phanatsms who lord over 'untermenschen' Palestinians, the "enemy" here is shown as all too human. Be it insurgent or British soldier, the human aspect is brought out pretty well.... starts off with long distance shots of human figures approaching to kill but they are "made human" in that climactic scene I talked about earlier.


This is a must watch! "Phull 400% excellent onlee", as our Jarnail Mian Pervez Musharraf would say. Most people would be familiar with Alfonso Cuaron through his "Great expectations" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" if not the classic "Y Tu Mama Tambien" starring Maribel Verdu..... however, this would be the movie Cuaron should be (and would be) known for. Fellow Sci-Fi heads, please cast aside the dystopic-futurism facet for a while and concentrate on the other themes of the movie. If you want a dystopia where a whole section of humanity is wiped off (save one "grail") I suggest you should try the continuing graphic novel series "Y: The Last Man" instead. Everyone, please try to pick out what's being said through this film. The messages are subtle, but they ain't that cryptic. Nor does it have any pseudo-intellectual/pseudo-secular subliminal messaging like Parzania or Rang de Basanti. I believe this would be an enjoyable experience for the viewers.... I personally loved it so much that I came back to blogging after 4 months of self-imposed exile!

And The Wanderer's grade?
Well.... I think this film truly deserves a 9 in a scale of 10 from moi. And that's five stars (rounded off ;-) ).

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