When the intelligence and inspiration are evident, films which set themselves specific formal challenges can be deeply rewarding. Current cinema technological advancements mean that we can conjure almost anything mirrored from the human imagination, from the deepest tranches of intergalactic space to a single tear traced down a human face, a macro to micro shift limited only by a screenwriters or directors visionary ambition. In that light when I hear of a films premise which deliberately sets itself binding constraints my interest is piqued, as was the case with the critically adored Room which has been showered with Academy Award praise after securing the Toronto film festival’s Audience Award last September. Partially inspired by the sheer, unimaginable horror of the Joseph Fritzel case Room is quite a curiosity just by the fact that such a non-commercial project got made, you can almost hear the disbelief of the purse clutching executives querying how exactly a movie which begins in a squalid rape dungeon could transform into an inspirational hymn to the resilience of the human spirit, although the popularity of the 2010 novel on which the adaptation was based was, as the producers tell it, the secret weapon to dismiss any concerns that the project may be inherently non-commercial. As the director of 2014’s modest cult hit Frank it’s remarkable to see a young talent catapulted from cult curio to Academy Award nominee, director Lenny Abrahamson now rubbing shoulders with the illustrious heights of veterans George Miller, Iñárritu and Adam McKay, with a shining path already stretching away should he win the elusive statuette or not. Room starts in somewhat less salubrious conditions, as we observe the claustrophobic birthday party preparations for Jack, played with an uncannily naturalistic skill by relative new-comer Jacob Tremblay. Like any inquisitive five-year-old Jack bounces around the constraining conditions of a rather squalid apartment room, the only natural light provided by a distant, almost celestial skylight. It soon becomes apparent that all is not quite right as the pieces of the puzzle slowly reveal a horrifying concept, that alongside his protective young mother (Brie Larson) Jack is being imprisoned against their will, and he has never experienced the world beyond the confines of their choking cell. His mother whom he affectionately refers to as ‘Ma’ interacts with ogrish ‘Old Nick’, their jailer who provides them with food and rations before raping ‘ma’ on a daily basis, when Jack is feebly sequestered away from such adult horrors, supposedly asleep in a thin-walled cupboard. Grim stuff huh? You may already be closing the browser muttering that ‘this isn’t a film for me’ but hang on just for a second, as if it means anything I can assure you that this isn’t a film about horror and incarceration, but a remarkably moving film about assimilation.
Based on the book by Emma Donahue who has also been corralled into scriptwriting duties there is absolutely no way of properly excavating this film without hacking through the narrative to second act spoilers, submerged plot points you will already have acquired if you’ve seen the trailer. If you wish to get into this film as bewildered and anxious as some viewers have been then I suggest you bookmark this page and come back later, as from the next sentence we will be quantifying the film’s unconventional structure and exceptional emotional strategy. Still here? Are you sure? Good, OK then, let’s move on. Much of the film is framed around Jack’s reflective narration which I think will make or break the film for some viewers, it’s an effective, lyrical technique to put us in his shoes and lead us into the heart of the story. The subject matter could easily have descended into the gutter of some sleazy exploitation flick, but of course that isn’t Abramson’s intention as he yearns and mostly succeeds in dragging us through the depths of human depravity to a transcendent and promising other side. When Ma and Jack manage to escape their confines via a blatantly unrealistic but narratively excusable plan the predicted plot concerns fade away, as the emphasis shifts from any notion of retribution or blame to simple adaption, of adjusting to a vast new world filled with creatures and characters not mediated through a tiny TV screen. Many of these entities seem foreboding and alien to a young boy whose entire existence has been restricted to two other humans and a small sampling of verminous critters, so he has no frame to process an intrusive media, strange family and imposing authority figures, the denizens of an adult world which is just as confusing and jarring for Ma (whom we learn is actually named Joy which has to be some blackly cosmic joke) as it is for the slowly regenerating Jack. Throughout the film Abramson shows that he’s good at framing faces and spaces, and has managed to coax out some remarkably poised and naturalistic performances – not bad for someone who had one of cinemas most popular actors locked behind a paper-mache mask for his last project.
As a former child actor herself Brie Larson’s connection with her seven-year-old colleague was a crucial factor in her casting and the fulcrum of their instant on-screen rapport, she’s the front-runner for the best actress this year and it’s not difficult to see why. Her discrete and internalized performance doesn’t resort to easy bug-eyed terror, but when she lets the mask slip to show the barely contained terror and fear churning within its quite the powerful revelation. With Trembalay we seem to have another Hayley Joel Osmond on our hands, an almost eerie maturity to his performance oscillating between a hesitant wonder and fear of the new infinite world beyond his previously curtailed horizons. I did find it the film a little syrupy in places, a PG13 take on an incredibly horrific scenario, so I’m slightly mystified at those solemnly warning it as being ‘challenging’ or ‘disturbing’ when quite frankly the unimaginable concept has been appropriately sanitized for as wide a multiplex audience as possible. Solid as always are Joan Allen as the Jacob’s overjoyed and patient grandmother, and a sadly wasted William H Macy appears as the confused grandfather whose inability to accept his new grandson seems to have been clipped for run time purposes. Best of the supporting cast however is stepfather Tom McCamus (whom eagle-eyed inquisitors may recognize from The Sweet Hereafter) who gets to lead on Room’s killer tear-wrenching tsunami scene, with a certain characters simple facial expression just about the most magical movie moment of the year so far – if I just say ‘Seamus’ then those whom have seen the film will know exactly what I’m talking about. After Frank and his earlier films Abrahamson has an affinity with isolated and damaged characters who nevertheless burst with an inquisitive spark of creativity, so it should be fascinating what his new profile awards him next – is that adaption of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time still orbiting production offices?
The film might be a little heavy on the stylised POV which places us in Jack’s frequently bewildered mind, but it’s also economic in some respects by letting the audience free associate through some narrative gaps, overwhelming any plot strands which could deviate from the films core emotional journey – why did Joy’s parents separate following her disappearance? Where does Granpa go and why does his inability to accept Jacob as anything beyond a symbol of his daughters defilement? What is the final fate of the monstrous Old Nick? Room conquers in some quiet little observational moments, through the small of tenderness which will, well, just destroy you should the journey manage to penetrate your black husk of a heart, quietly ruminating on an innocents resilience and how such incomprehensible cruelty can be endured and surpassed. Now, I can’t believe I got through this entire review without making some spurious Tommy Wiseau gag, for the record he’s in London soon to conduct some screening quote-along which just goes to show how you can carve a career from such utterly unbelievable incompetence eh? So this leaves Spotlight to see next weekend which I think will conclude this year’s Oscar coverage, I still have some interest in seeing Creed, Joy and at a push Trumbo but I’m just not sure I have the endurance for any of them at the cinema, especially after four 1,500 reviews in a week (with another en-route in a couple of days) and with the likes of The Witch taking flight on her broomstick in a couple of weeks. For me I found Room heartening not just for the inherent story of triumph over adversity, a concept as old as drama itself, but also for the success that such a hideous sounding concept could connect with an audience through its measured approach to such material, or as Ebert so memorably said ‘it’s not what a films about, it’s how it is about it’;