Monday, July 2, 2007

Film: Children of Men

Well, the weekend ran away from me before I was able to post again about another film I thought would be relevant to this blog, in addition to the marvelous film Saints and Soldiers, which I posted about earlier.

The film is Children of Men, an adaption of the novel of the same name by the author P.D. James (Baronness Phyllis Dorothy James), who is best known for her mystery novels featuring the detectives Adam Dalgliesh or Cordelia Gray. But in 1992, James wrote a book that can be classified as science fiction, although it is shies away from scientific detail. Instead, it simply starts from the premise that all human beings on planet Earth ceased to reproduce in 1995. All men ceased to produce sperm, and all sperm stored in laboratories became infertile. No more babies were born. The action of the novel then starts in the year 2021, when the youngest people on the planet are in their twenties, and all human societies have been changed - brutally, horribly, weirdly - in response to the departure of children from the world of men, which is now heading to extinction. The book takes its title, Children of Men, from a passage in the Psalms: "Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men."

I read the book when it first came out since I was very struck by the plot's main premise and the book is, indeed, a good read.

The film, on the other hand, is really excellent. Extreme liberties - EXTREME liberties - were taken in the adaptation of the book to film. It's probably more fair to call it a film inspired by the same premise as James's novel, but with a plot that takes on a quite different shape. And, speaking for myself, I enjoyed the film far more than I did the book. A rare event, but that is decidedly the case here. I do wonder what P.D. James herself thinks of what happened to her story! James's novel is extraordinarily bleak with very little human sentimentality of any kind to redeem it. That is not surprising; her mystery novels, too, are brimming over with desperate, sad, lamentable characters whose emotional lives are anything but sympathetic. (Don't get me wrong: her books are great to read, and I've read about a dozen of them... but sympathetic characters are not the appeal.)

In the film version of Children of Men, however, all kinds of changes are made to P.D. James's novel which give it an emotionally satisfying quality that the book, for all its intelligence, never achieved for me. As you can imagine, the plot does involve a woman who becomes pregnant (the story's premise essentially demands that, of course!) - but the film constructs a wholly new character for this expectant mother, and she is a character who resonates much more profoundly with the archetypal figure of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. And like Jesus, this new baby, born in desperate circumstances - circumstances far worse than a manger in Bethlehem - is destined to save the world, not from sin, but from extinction. The film does a brilliant job with the "nativity" of the child, and the stunning effect that the infant has on those around her (note: her, not him).

The film has garnered very high ratings at imdb.com (although it seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it reaction, as you can see from the viewer reviews at amazon.com). The movie can definitely be appreciated without pondering the parallels between the miraculous birth story in the film and the account of Jesus's nativity. Yet for me, as I watched the film, it was even more satisfying to see in my mind's eye the nativity scenes of the infant Jesus and compare them to the scenes unfolding in the latter part of the film.

The filmmakers, of course, were very aware of this connection: in the U.S., the film was released on none other than December 25!

So, if you are curious, I would definitely recommend this as a film worth watching, especially if you want to ponder a modern inflection of the Christian nativity story from two thousand years ago.

Here's a still from the film, showing Theo, the film's reluctant hero, escorting the mother, Kee, and her newborn baby from the midst of a warzone. Both actors (Clive Owen, Claire-Hope Ashitey) do an excellent job in the film. It must have been a grueling experience to make the movie and, be warned, it is a bit grueling to watch - but well worth it, I think!



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