Film review of the drama about a young woman and her son who are held captive by a man and how she enriches and informs his otherwise insular, fantasy-led understanding of the world outside. Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen and William H. Macy. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson.
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Director: Lenny Abrahamson. (118 mins). A24/Element Pictures/No Trace Camping. (15)
Cast & credits
Producer: David Gross, Ed Guiney.
Writer: Emma Donoghue.
Camera: Danny Cohen.
Music: Stephen Rennicks.
Sets: Ethan Tobman.
Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Sean Bridgers, Wendy Crewson.
Like many other young boys, young Jack (Tremblay) is the happy, intelligent and much loved (if somewhat naive) son of Joy (Larson). Unlike other boys though, he lives with Joy in a single room, held captive by the unbalanced and violent Old Nick (Bridgers) shut away from the outside world. He fantasises about what life is like, based on what he sees on TV and his mother’s explanations. Despite his relative happiness with her, she resolves to broaden his horizons by helping him escape so the two can live in the outside world. But adapting to life outside ‘room’ is fraught with as many difficulties as living in it.
Review (spoiler alerts!)
It’s rare for the world to be stopped dead in its tracks and left speechless by what man can do to man.
We are so inured to news stories, films and TV programmes about the cruelty and pain our species is capable of inflicting, that perhaps we are numb to the suffering of our fellow human beings.
Following the uncovering of the crimes of Josef Fritzl (who imprisoned his daughter Elisabeth in a basement network of rooms fathering seven children with her) and the escape of Natascha Kampusch from Wolfgang Přiklopil who kidnapped her at the age of 10 and held her captive for eight years, it was perhaps surprising the level of horror and revulsion expressed when these stories hit the press.
Worryingly, there might be other levels to the human psyche waiting to be revealed.
Screenwriter Donoghue adapts her own novel. The script here follows a similar subject matter to the Fritzl story but concentrates less on the abuse inflicted by the male perpetrator and more on the relationship between the affected mother and child and their later assimilation into the wider world which has otherwise been denied to them.
She covers some uncomfortable terrain yet her writing appears a little hesitant, as if she doesn’t want to go too far with her audience.
In terms of prurience, this is correct and the sexual abuse Joy undergoes is cleverly hinted at through slatted glimpses of Old Nick through the door of the cupboard she hides her son in.
But we are left a little short changed in other respects. To explain, I was surveyed by the makers of this film immediately after seeing it.
I happily completed their questionnaire, mostly about whether I had heard of Larson before (no) and where I had heard about the film (on TV and in the cinema, in case anyone was wondering).
But I was honest in my opinion of the film, that it was worth watching, but definitely a missed opportunity.
The emphasis of the film is on Joy and Jack’s adjustment to the outside world after Jack’s daring escape. This is not surprising as this is a mainstream release about difficult subject matter. It’s also understandable for a filmmaker who may want to break out of the confines of a single and very small set.
But it’s interesting to think how this story could have been approached by someone else and from a different angle. It’s difficult to broach the horrors of such a tale for an entertainment medium as the cinema, but the inherent interest in this story is how Joy makes sure that her child receives an intellectually and emotionally stimulating upbringing in such extreme circumstances.
My heart raced during Jack’s daytime flight to freedom, but this was also the point where it sank – outside of the hermetically sealed world of room, all of the interest and magic of Abrahamsson’s film suddenly evaporated. It would take a lot to fill the vacuum created and the latter section of the film, though impeccably acted and observed, did not match what had been created previously.
Again, this is understandable and I feel the audience definitely needed this change in gear for what could have been an even more grim movie, I just felt we were on the road to something of infinitely more intimate worth. I needed more of this before we moved on.
NB: Although Joy and Jack escape from room, they end up being housed in a variety of others. Her parents house is just a collection of larger rooms, each one representing different functions, needs and emotions, whereas the original room was more comprehensive.
One other thing that perturbed me was how the character of Joy’s father is handled. He is ushered in during an emotional reunion sequence with Joy’s mother (Allen) but fails to bond with his grandson. He can’t even look him in the eye and leaves the reunion dinner rather than do this. We don’t see him again, meaning we learn nothing of his feelings or reasons.
Larson is a mature and perceptive actress. Despite her character’s situation, she remains the positive centre piece of her son’s life. She later criticises herself (and is criticised during an awful tabloid TV interview) for being a poor mother, but she is of course an excellent one, able to develop her child’s mind during horrendous social deprivation and isolation and keep a level, sensible head despite being incarcerated. No surprise she is Oscar nominated and a shoe-in to receive the award.
Criminally, Tremblay is not Oscar nominated alongside her (although he has received nominations from a number of other American and Canadian awards and festivals). Given his relative inexperience as an actor, he’s actually a notch better than Larsen. It’s the kind of thing people used to say made Shirley Temple appear like she was possessed, but in Larsen this ‘witchcraft’ lends him astonishing depth of impact.
He imbues his role with star quality as he travels from the nurturing chrysalis of room into the bright and harshness of world. It’s as rewarding a journey for us as it is for him. Our eyes are opened as his are.
Special mention to the keen eye and minute observation of designer Tobman for the sparse yet full, grubby but homely room.
See the official trailer on Youtube.