There’s kind of a rule when it comes to screenwriting: the more writers collaborate on a screenplay, the lower the quality of the finished product. Point of trivia: the use of an ampersand (&) in screenwriting credits indicates collaboration, while the use of the complete word ‘and’ indicates a separate re-write. I’m not even sure if what I’ve used above is correct here – I’m just going by what Yahoo! tells me – but if I’ve got it right, that’s a minimum of three separate writes and re-writes for this script. So, it must be rubbish, right?
Yes and no. Yes, the screenplay for Children of Men is loaded down with plot holes, contrivances, out-and-out stupidity and a large degree of overwrought (usually religious) symbolism. No, because if a poor screenplay can attract a good director, gold can still be spun. It was the case with Miami Vice – Mann’s script was crap even before Jamie Foxx forced him to change half of it – and it is the case here. Cuaron’s direction is better than good – it’s great, and most surprisingly, it offers something almost completely new in cinema.
It’s not unusual for directors to indulge in long takes: extended, carefully choreographed and skilfully created shots that make what is happening seem all the more real. But in scenes of high action? Almost unheard of, especially these days when you’ve got films like Batman Begins preventing you from seeing anything in the fight scenes because of their 0.1sec average shot length. Here, Cuaron has his most thrilling sequences play out in shots of up to four or five minutes in length, and the plight of his characters takes on such an immediacy that when the camera moves into an unprotected place, we fear for it as we fear for the characters. He cheated by patching shots together to make them look like one – this is obvious in at least two places – but it’s still remarkable, and never loses its novelty or impact.
So, as we check off more boxes on the hokum list – animals love hero, Mary-figure draped in old cloth, a boat to salvation called ‘Tomorrow’ – we are forced to put the clipboard away and marvel at what’s being shown up there on the screen. Likewise, as advantages materialise in front of our hero, we don’t really mind because it all feels so real. (Occasional comment poster Helen Back would disagree, but ignore her if she pipes up, even though she’s partly right.) Kudos must be extended at this point to the excellent work done by the cinematographer and production design team, because they create a vision of the future which is at once believable and nightmarish. Wisely, they add little to what already exists today, instead concentrating most of their efforts on what would be missing.
Praise also be to Clive Owen, who gives his most complex, wide-ranging film performance yet. I’ve never been quite sure what to think of him because he always seems kind of flat, like he’s just playing himself, but he uses everything he has here without making it look obvious. It would have been so easy to drift into caricature, being as his Theo is the classic put-upon hero, but with his stumbles and swearing he crafts a unique screen character. (I really love it when film actors can swear well repeatedly; I think it’s a great sign of quality.) The supports are good too, especially Michael Caine as a Steve Bell-type with a great taste in music.
Children of Men is a strange beast, then. Like so many films, the greatness of some aspects (direction, cinematography, design) fights tooth and nail against the crapness of others (screenplay, screenplay, screenplay). However, unlike most of these films, the greatness wins out over the crapness for a change! Seeing as Cuaron was heavily involved in the writing, he doesn’t deserve all-consuming praise, but as a director he’s produced some of the best work on offer this year. Forget all the bullshit flying around the story, and watch it for the darkness (and dark humour) that drips off the screen.