Children of Men

In theaters.

My brother and I—along with a variable assortment of family members—usually go to the movies on Christmas night, but this year we stayed home. None of the new releases really inspired me. I didn’t feel like a Motown musical, and the post-apocalyptic Children of Men looked too grim for the holiday.

I finally made it to Children of Men this past weekend and soon realized I was wrong about it not being a good Christmas movie. It’s definitely grim, but it’s grim in a way that’s perfectly appropriate for Christmas. As bleak and frightening as director Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film is, it scratches out a bleary, hard-fought sense of hope. Beautifully acted, beautifully crafted, and beautifully told, it’s my favorite movie of 2006. That’s why it’s taken me so damn long to write about it.

Children of Men takes place a few decades in the future, eighteen years after human beings mysteriously lost the ability to reproduce. Wracked with despair and desperation, most countries have plunged into chaos, but Britain soldiers on, albeit under a frighteningly authoritarian government. Theo (Clive Owen) is just another wretched bureaucrat until Julian (Julianne Moore), a former lover, now a resistance leader, contacts him for help. She needs travel documents for a young refugee named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey). At first Theo doesn’t know or care why Kee is so important, but once he finds out, everything changes. Kee is pregnant.

The story’s central conceit—a miraculous pregnancy in a troubled world—obviously lends itself to nativity allusions, but to get bogged down by narrative parallels would be to miss the point. Children of Men isn’t a religious picture, satirizing or retelling the familiar story of Jesus’ birth. Instead, it complements the story. Kee’s baby doesn’t represent the divine come to live among us, but something simpler: hope—a faint but real hope of life in a world of death, a world without a future. What could be more Christmassy than that?

That’s a lot to pack into what is ostensibly a thriller, but Children of Men is no ordinary thriller. First, the storytelling is brilliantly spare. Cuarón and the five screenwriters (he among them) credited with adapting P.D. James’ novel don’t waste time with heavy-handed exposition or backstory. They plunge us into this disintegrating world and trust us to piece together what we need to know. The task isn’t difficult, for the world they provide is rich with suggestive power. The Orwellian advertisements on the street, the dilapidated condition of the cars, the constant doting on pets—unremarked-upon details such as these help make the story immersive.

In any case, we don’t have time for exposition. The story rolls forward relentlessly, never losing momentum or interest. Cuarón’s filmmaking here is enthralling. He eschews cuts, filming entire scenes in long, unbroken but mobile shots. In other movies, that effect often comes across as glib, pseudo-documentary pretension, a cheap attempt to make us feel as though we are watching real events as they unfold. But Children of Men isn’t merely observant; artfully hyperreal, it thrusts us into what it happening onscreen. We don’t have a spectator’s distance; everything is happening all around us.

Cuarón’s incredible technique would mean little, though, were it not for the emotional resonance of the story, and the talented cast is largely responsible for that power. Moore’s Julian is strong without being hard, a charismatic enigma. Michael Caine shines in a small supporting role as an aging effervescent hippie caring for catatonic wife. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings an unnervingly rational demeanor to Luke, a zealot in Julian’s organization, and Ashitey, a relative newcomer, gives Kee such tenacity that we never mistake her for a mere pawn, even when some of the other characters do.

But the real star is Owen, who portrays Theo’s rocky transition from weary resignation to newfound resolution with empathy and silent eloquence. His guarded eyes and lined face pull us in. We share Theo’s confusion and fear and anger and, ultimately, his sense of wonder. Owen is always great—he was the only actor who didn’t make me giggle derisively during the silly, puerile Closer—but in Children of Men, he delivers a truly remarkable performance: absorbing, gritty, and heartbreaking.

By the time Children of Men reaches its emotional climax—a truly astonishing sequence in which the action pauses for a long, contemplatively held breath—it is clear that the movie is a masterpiece. It’s energetic and exciting and thought-provoking, but more than that, it means something.

Who doesn’t occasionally slip into despair reading the latest headlines? Sometimes it feels as though the world will collapse in a generation, whether people can bear children or not. Children of Men takes that fear of oblivion, dramatizes it in the most horrific way possible, and still finds a way—an honest, fragile, beautiful way—not to abandon hope.