So… I’m now an emotional wreck, thanks to Lenny Abrahamson’s new film Room – a Best Picture nominee at this year’s Oscars, and with good reason. Writing this movie off as a harrowing tale of abduction (although there’s a reason the board of censors warn of an ‘abduction theme’ before the film starts) would be a mistake – it’s both a traditional and recognisable story of survival and love against all odds and so much more than that. Having read the novel this film is based on a few years ago, I knew what I was letting myself in for: the author, Emma Donoghue, also wrote the screenplay so you’re guaranteed a faithful, writer-approved, adaptation. But I wasn’t sure if the movie could add anything to the book-reading experience, and I was proven wrong.
It helps that Room is anchored by two truly special performances from Brie Larson as Ma (AKA Joy) and Jacob Tremblay as her five-year old son Jack. If they didn’t have such a palpable bond, building a believable and touching relationship between people in terrifying circumstances, the film would be nowhere near as successful. You’re with them every step of the way, as Jack discovers a whole world outside the confines of Room (which is almost a character in itself) and Ma struggles to find her place again in a society that can never hope to understand everything she has gone through in the previous seven years. It’s not really possible to discuss the film without divulging the so-called “twist”, and wisely the film-makers don’t expend much energy on making you guess the nature of the situation this mother and child are in. Suffice it to say that Ma and Jack’s living arrangement at the start of the film is the stuff of nightmares, but director Lenny Abrahamson never lets us forget for a moment that – for Jack – Room is also a place of magic and wonder, conjured by the books his mum reads to him, by the comforting presence of a TV and by Jack’s own strong imagination. Abrahamson and his actors manage to capture so well the miniature universe Jack and Ma have made for themselves that the first half-hour or so of Room is fully immersive – in a wonderful, simple way.
But even when the film opens out into the more familiar environment of suburban America, it remains beautiful, and yet tinged with a sense of strangeness so that you still see everything from Jack’s point of view. This is a difficult trick to pull off, and it’s helped by the fact that both Tremblay and Larson are so likeable as individuals and as an unconventional family unit. One of the most devastating sequences I’ve seen in a long time comes around a third of the way through: not ashamed to say that the tears were flowing! It’s testament to these performances – both of which should really be up for Oscars, not just Brie Larson’s – that you’re siding with the two of them and willing them to survive and thrive every step of the way. Jacob Tremblay has to be one of the best child actors of all time, realistically stroppy and difficult at times but never irritating. And Brie Larson goes from dead-eyed resignation through wild desperate hope to bewilderment at her inability to be “happy” when she finally manages to find a way out of Room: she is never less than utterly convincing, and deserves to win the Oscar for which she’s the firm favourite. Her performance is so powerful and engaging that it’s easy to forget she’s acting out a role, and she’s well supported by a cast that includes the wonderfully warm Joan Allen and closed-off grandfather William H Macy.
All in all, this is a movie that demands emotional investment – and earns it. It’s not an easy watch at times, but Lenny Abrahamson (previously probably best known for quirky Indie comedy Frank) crafts a pretty much flawless, gut-wrenching yet uplifting jewel of a film. Highly recommended, and it’ll take something spectacular to top this as my favourite film of 2016.
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