Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, Tom McCamus, William H. Macy
Irish director Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel Room (which she wrote the screenplay for) is a tender and at times thrilling drama about the love of a mother for her son in the face of extreme circumstances.
Five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) lives with his mother (Brie Larson) in Room, a small, grimy, sound-proof shed with a skylight. He has lived there his whole life. It is just the two of them except for once a week in the evening when he must hide in the wardrobe while a mysterious man known only as ‘Old Nick’ (Sean Bridgers) comes to drop off supplies and ‘visit’ his mother. As an audience we make assumptions about Jack and his Ma’s situation and how they came to be there, but Jack never questions it. In his limited perspective there is Room, there is outer space and there are the planets that he sees on TV, but they aren’t real. Only Room is real. This is the framework Ma has had to give him in order to conceal the true horror of their situation. But after his fifth birthday she decides it is time to open up to him and to plan their escape. But Room is a film of two distinct but equally engrossing halves, for it does not finish with their escape. Ma, whose name it turns out is Joy, is reunited with her parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) who have divorced since her disappearance. But while Jack and Ma have managed to physically escape from Room and Old Nick, the psychological impact of their captivity is not as easy to free themselves of.
Part of what makes Donoghue’s narrative so engrossing is the contrast between the way that these two characters see the world. While Room is clearly an environment of great stress and oppression for Ma – though she would never let Jack see that – to Jack, having known no other life, it is not a claustrophobic space. As he is our narrator, it is Jack’s perspective that is reflected in Abrahamson’s direction and Danny Cohen’s cinematography. In the first half of the movie, particularly prior to the decision to try and escape, widescreen cinematography is used to manipulate the enclosed space. While it is a small space, we never see it all in one shot. Instead, Room is broken up into distinct areas – Ma’s bed, the kitchenette, the toilet, the dinner table. As such there is a subtle juxtaposition between the visual presentation of this physical space and the intellectual reality of it that we understand. The filmmaker also opts for a muted, grey colour palate in Room so that we, like Jack, experience the transition to the ordinary outside world as an explosion of brightness and colour.
This powerful film is anchored by two almighty performances. In the role that won her a Best Actress Academy Award, Brie Larson delivers a layered and emotional performance that is strongly maternal. Living in Room, we see the lengths she goes to to create a healthy, safe and ‘normal’ life for her son. They exercise, the learn, they have fun. Yet in her eyes we see the incredible strain she is under. But Jack has given her a reason to persevere. Once outside of Room, her concern is entirely for how Jack will adapt, but it doesn’t take long for us to see that his transition, while greater, will be more easily achieved than hers, and the second half of Larson’s performance becomes a compelling exploration of post-traumatic stress.
Every part as impressive as Larson, though, is the nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay. As Jack, his delicate and thoughtful performance lacks the precociousness that so often infuses the work of child actors. When Ma first attempts to explain the reality of their situation to him, he is incapable of comprehending it. The mere notion that there must be something on the other side of the wall is beyond him. As the film progresses, we see Jack’s intellectual understanding of the world expanding as he acclimatises to life outside Room. Abrahamson’s direction emphasis Jack’s experiential journey. A shot focuses on feet exploring the texture of carpet. He notes the constant fluctuation of temperature. We are continually confronted by the extent to which his experience has been limited and he must therefore learn things that we take for granted – his Ma has to show him how to climb a set of stairs.
While Lenny Abrahamson is known on the festival and arthouse circuit, Room – which is easily his most polished film – should put him on the map as a filmmaker of interest for a wider audience. At times thrilling and heartbreaking, Room is a film of great emotional impact which through its traumatic subject matter manages to be strangely life affirming.
Review by Duncan McLean
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