James' 1992 novel thematically tied to our times

Children Of Men

on January 05, 2007 by Tim Cogshell
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The year is 2027, and all hope for the ongoing existence of humankind is lost. Has been for a while. The last human was born 18 years ago, and, as Children of Men begins, the young Argentine boy has recently been killed in a public brawl. Our unlikely hero, Theo (Clive Owen, The Inside Man ), sees the story on the television in a central London cafe as he purchases his morning coffee amid a crush of patrons wrapped in the news account of the senseless death; Theo couldn't care less. Moments later a bomb goes off where he had just been, listlessly stirring sugar into his java. This rattles him only slightly more than the notion of the death of the last man born on earth.

Such is the nature of life in a doomed world: numb and gray and slightly off-key like the perpetual ringing in Theo's ears. Yet it is still a society in which governments become authoritarian and extreme forms of nationalism are the norm. We don't know much more about the world in this bleak yet driven film adapted from one of the few literary novels by British writer P.D James. This marks a distinct departure from the book, and there are many others, most of them significant, but the central premise and its consequences remain intact: No babies. No hope.

James is best-known for her crime mysteries and detective fiction, including the Adam Dalgliesh series that began with her debut novel Cover Her Face (1962), written when she was already in her 40s and well into a career in the British civil service. A good many of these books have been made into films or series for television, all quite finely done, but her dystopian novel The Children of Men (1992), a post-modern tale of a world caught in a slowly evolving apocalypse brought on by infertility rather than instant annihilation, had yet to be transposed into the more visceral medium of cinema. Unwittingly, the delay was an effective one, as, between then and now, events emblematic of the social-dystopia that James certainly would have insinuated into her novel have since occurred: the Balkan wars (1991-2001); genocide in Rwanda (1994); Iraq wars (past and present); 9/11; bombings in Madrid and London; and so on. (Note: James is 86 and still works.)

As it is, director Alfonso Cuaron ( Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Y tu mama, tambien ), who co-adapated James' the novel for the screen, has managed to speak to each of those social upheavals (and likely a few as yet to occur) while retaining to the essential elements of James' premise that humanity is infertile and all hope is lost. Cuaron's vision of James' story encapsulates all these notions in a movie that is part futuristic sci-fi thriller, part urban guerilla war movie, part social satire and, belying its ostensive cynicism about our collective fates, imbued with a sense of magical realism that borders on the religious.

Indeed, the religious themes and iconography are rampant. Usually one would find this...irritating. Here, however, there is an underlying wit interned with the weight of dire consequence, and the very genuine human inclination to not only survive, but to survive with dignity, is explored with even-handed consideration. Even as echoes of Nazi concentrations camps and interred Japanese Americans abound, the politics of terrorism are challenged. They are condemned, but no more so than the social structures that spawn both them and the internment camps. In the end a savior is necessary.

We are not required to accept this as an act of God; it is, however, highly suggested. Still, it might simply be the nature of things. In either case, it is necessary for humans to stop doing what they are inclined to do (engage in rampant destruction) if “God's” grace or the vicissitudes of evolution, depending on your point of view, are to save us despite ourselves. It's a sophisticated notion handled fairly deftly in what might be the first film of the 21st century to ponder the end of humanity as it is most likely to occur: slowly with lots of time to think about it. Distributor: Universal
Cast: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Claire-Hope Ashitey
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Screenwriters: Alfanso Cuaron & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby
Producers: Hilary Shor, Marc Abraham, Tony Smith, Eric Newman and Iain Smith
Genre: Thriller
Rating: Rated R for strong violence, language, some drug use and brief nudity
Running time: 109 min.
Release date: December 25, 2006 ltd

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