In the year 2027 an unexplained global fertility crisis has led to no human being born in more than 18 years. As the world’s governments topple and collapse into anarchy, Great Britain struggles on via a totalitarian government and the mass deportation of immigrants and refugees. Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a mid-level government bureaucrat, is kidnapped by a terrorist organisation and convinced by his ex-wife Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore) to escort a young refugee to safety and away from Britain’s nightmarish refugee camps.
Children of Men is a science fiction drama directed by Alfonso Cuarón and based on the 1992 novel by P.D. James. When released back in 2006 the film felt like a frightening near-future dystopia. When viewed 11 years after it was made, its near future setting feels an awful lot closer, and its bleak, miserable outlook a lot more realistic than it used to. Whether that is a testament to the film’s prescience or an indictment on contemporary society I am not sure; it is very possible it is a mixture of the two.
Clive Owen is a great actor who briefly seemed on the cusp of super-stardom, but whose slightly erratic choices of projects seemed to reduce his visibility somewhat. He is tremendous here, demonstrating an enormously well-conceived character arc from jaded alcoholic to passionate saviour. At the beginning of the film he is regularly taking swigs from a bottle of spirits jammed in a coat pocket. By the climax he is using it to sterilise his hands.
Owen’s character inhabits a disturbingly believable future. Cuarón is, without exaggeration, a master filmmaker. In Children of Men he brings his considerable talents to bear on a film that not only tells an arresting and timely story but also presents incredible world-building in the background. Almost every shot develops and refines the Great Britain of 2027. It is in the graffiti on the walls, the advertising on billboards, and news bulletins on television sets. There is so much depth in a single scene of Theo walking down the street past heavily armed police squads forcing immigrants into literal cages on the pavement. Behind them their possessions are hurled from the balconies of apartment blocks. The inhumanity is staggering, but everyday citizens know to not turns their heads and to simply keep walking.
It is in the refugee camp of the third act that the world-building hits its most impactful state. The refugees are framed by the apparatus of government to look like cattle. The cruelty is overwhelming. The violence is visceral. When order breaks down and the shooting begins, it feels as accurate and confronting as any contemporary war film. Cuarón enables such bleak realism through the extensive use of long, uninterrupted takes. Without the artificial insertion of editing cuts, it becomes particularly immersive.
At the same time the action is overlaid with numerous art and cultural references. The world is collapsing into anarchy, and Cuarón regularly echoes and points to all of the civilization and culture about to be lost. Michelangelo’s David features prominently, but his La Pieta is not only also mentioned but deliberately echoed in a striking moment when the refugee camp breaks open. In another scene an inflatable pink pig sails over Battersea Power Station, referencing Pink Floyd’s Animals – itself a work inspired by George Orwell’s warnings of totalitarianism and its dehumanising effects.
As with the best of science fiction films, Children of Men uses a future setting to interrogate present-day social issues. It builds an entire consistent world around its characters, but it remembers to keep its focus close and personal. It carries an enormous dramatic weight. Its supporting cast, including Michael Caine and Julianne Moore, is exceptional. It is one of those rare movies where claiming it as a great film does not quite suffice, and you find yourself reaching for that terribly over-used and abused superlative: masterpiece.