Introduction to Children of Men
Here’s the text of the intro I gave on Children of Men, for Derby QUAD‘s inaugural ID Fest. As I suspected after attending the launch party, the four-day event turned out to be a huge success, drawing big audiences and lively debate on matters of English identity.
That brief, incidentally, explains why my talk is so fixated on Alfonso Cuaron not being English!
Children of Men talk given on Sunday, 28th November
Question: what do the following movies have in common? Blow Up, Brazil, The Servant, A Hard Day’s Night, Sense and Sensibility, Elizabeth, A Clockwork Orange… The answer is that all of them were voted amongst the Best 100 British Movies in a poll conducted by the British Film Institute in 1999. The other answer is that none of them was directed by an English filmmaker. The above list includes several Americans (Joseph Losey, Terry Gilliam, Richard Lester and Stanley Kubrick), but also the Italian Michaelangelo Antonioni, the Taiwanese Ang Lee and the Indian Shekhar Kapur.
Britain’s – specifically, England’s – place in the world has often made it a hub for émigré directors. Gilliam and Kubrick came here to work and stayed because they loved it. Losey and Jules Dassin – director of Night and the City – arrived as exiles, blacklisted by Hollywood. Roman Polanski made several movies, including Repulsion, while travelling in the opposite direction, en route from Poland to Hollywood. And the likes of Karel Reisz and Emeric Pressburger were Jewish refugees from war-torn Europe.
Possibly some directors came to like England as a base because it gave them access to top actors and craftsmen without having studio executives looking over their shoulder. That’s certainly true in Kubrick’s case. But it’s also because this country offers such fascination to foreign artists. A tiny island, rich in history and full of contrasts, it’s a dramatic gift that keeps on giving, but sometimes it takes an outsider’s viewpoint to really get to the heart of it.
Which brings us to Children of Men. For my money it’s the finest movie about England made in the past decade, a film that simultaneously makes you ashamed and proud to be English. And that’s precisely because of the perspective that Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron brings to his hellishly plausible dystopian vision of our future.
Cuaron is a figurehead of a hugely talented generation of Mexican filmmakers for whom the world is their playground. His regular collaborators and countrymen include Guillermo Del Toro, who alternates between the Spanish art-house, with the likes of Pan’s Labyrinth, and the Hollywood mainstream with his Hellboy franchise; and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose last film was the multi-strand, globe-trotting Babel.
England, though, has long been at the heart of Cuaron’s career. His English-language breakthrough was an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s classic A Little Princess, and he followed it with an Americanised version of Dickens’ Great Expectations. Later, of course, he helmed the third (and, for many, best) of the Harry Potter movies, The Prisoner of Azkaban.
Even so, these are all family-friendly projects, but P.D. James’ bleak sci-fi novel, The Children of Men, is a quite different story. It’s a highly political parable of a future society governed by the old, because infertility has robbed it of new life. Totalitarian rule, state-sanctioned suicide, and exploitation of foreign labour must all be overcome if life is to begin anew… But the subject spoke strongly to Cuaron, because it had its roots much closer to home.
Cuaron’s calling card as a major director, made before his Hogwarts holiday, was Y Tu Mama Tambien, a road movie about two privileged Mexican teenagers trying to impress an attractive older woman. It sounds childish, but the Porky’s-style set-up was undercut by Cuaron’s extensive use of an omniscient narrator, who fills in details on the life of poor, rural Mexicans who the horny boys pass by, oblivious to the hardship outside their bubble.
Children of Men resonates with similar themes. Where most dystopian movies pile on the science-fiction iconography, Cuaron looked around London, found the most run-down places and art directed them to look more like the Mexico he knew: a extrapolation of contemporary trends into the future. It’s worth noting that the film was released months after another American-financed vision of a dark future England, V For Vendetta, but where that movie swathed its message in deliberately retro visuals, Cuaron’s is unmistakably a film about the here and now.
Contemporary parallels echo even stronger when you compare the film to its source novel. P.D. James published in 1992; in the fourteen year gap, the world was changed irrevocably by 9/11 and the War on Terror. Cuaron pushes James’ hints of xenophobia, and a class system based on ethnicity, into the post-9/11 worldIn the book, migrants have to be lured and exploited to come to England; in the film, they come voluntarily but are unwanted, dumped into a frankly horrible refugee camp visually inspired by war reporting from Beirut and Bosnia.
It’s a fascinating change in emphasis, but one that reflects England’s complicated standing in the world. Both facets are equally true. To an English native, like P.D. James, faced daily with the pedantry and pettiness of the national character, it can sometimes be inconceivable why people would choose to live here. But Cuaron, born in a country with a long tradition of migration, sees the flipside to this. Drawing on Battle of Britain imagery, in the film, England is the last refuge on Earth, the only place that has maintained some semblance of civilisation and where thousands swarm in hope of something better.
Ironically, Cuaron keeps the book’s harsh realities of suicide and military force, to paint a much more complex picture of English identity. The refugees believe in England’s green and pleasant land, but if the grass truly is greener in Cuaron’s film, then how bad must things be elsewhere? It’s a reminder that, however much we might grumble about England, we’ve been isolated from the worst excesses of human behaviour for centuries. For all the carnage, there is hope, too. In the that Clive Owen’s sardonic misanthrope becomes a hero under fire, or the way that the film’s moral voice belongs to Michael Caine as a hippy dissident who breaks wind as freely as he breaks the rules, it’s a celebration of the English character.
And that’s without mentioning the impact of Cuaron’s considerable filmmaking talent, which re-energises the style and scope of English cinema itself. Cuaron treats the film as an action thriller, but one much more stark and startling than would be permissible in an American-set story. Instead of the fast-cut flurry of light and noise favoured by Hollywood, Cuaron favours fluid, edgy long takes closer to newsreel. This preference for verisimilitude and realism is a British tradition dating back decades, but Cuaron ups our game: there are extraordinarily elaborate, technically pioneering shots here that are amongst the greatest achievements in modern cinematography, courtesy of Emmanuel Lubezki, a fellow Mexican who is also Terence Malick’s cameraman of choice – not a link you often see in English cinema.
The overall effect is raw, real and breathtaking – a film that is fully aware of the traditions of English cinema in tone and technique, but which is unconstrained by either. I said earlier I rated this as the best English film of the past decade, but actually I think it’s close to being the best film from anywhere in the world made in the past decade. I’m delighted that it continues the traditions of Gilliam and Kubrick and Polanski in choosing England to make their best films, and equally delighted that it’s the final film in this year’s ID Fest.