Life on the inside…
You don’t have to be claustrophobic to be unsettled by Lenny Abrahamson’s latest, a tale of love, hope and survival that confines a significant part of its action to an airless, locked outhouse. Said shed has been the home of Ma (Brie Larson) for seven years, the length of time she has been held captive by a man we know only by the demonic moniker Old Nick (Sean Bridgers).
The last five of those years have been spent raising Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a little boy for whom this single room represents the world in its entirety. Jack, to state the horrifically obvious, is Old Nick’s son – a child born of rape who may be Ma’s only chance of salvation.
Recent scandals involving the likes of Josef Fritzl, Ariel Castro and Aravindan ‘Comrade Bala’ Balakrishnan have shown that Room’s plot, if outlandish, is anything but fanciful. Yet Abrahamson’s film – adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own best-selling novel – is no lurid exploitationer but a thoughtful, at times poetic meditation on how one endures and makes bearable a nightmarish dilemma.
Ma, a bit like Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful, artfully shields her five-year-old from the ghastliness of their shared plight, filling his days instead with fun, games and exercise. Jack, for his part, gives Ma a reason to go on living a life she would have happily put an end to were he not there to be cared for.
Room, then, is a story of mutual dependency under the bleakest conditions conceivable. But because it’s told from Jack’s perspective, it’s rarely explicitly bleak. Never having seen or known anything else, ‘Room’ is no cell for Jack but a playground of possibilities: one in which Lamp and Bath and Stove are friends as much as implements, and Ma is an omnipresent, ever-adoring constant.
Jack, in short, is not one to complain, even when the heat is capriciously turned off or when he’s obliged to hide in Wardrobe to facilitate Old Nick’s frequent visitations – encounters that we, like him, do not see but only hear taking place from behind a shuttered partition. Indeed, there are times Donoghue provocatively asks if such an upbringing might even be preferable to the over-stimulated, expectation-burdened childhood that is generally considered ‘normal’.
Abrahamson, like Jack, makes the best of his lot too, deploying imagination, creativity and a host of ingenious angles to make Room as cinematic as possible. (You wonder if he wanted to set himself a challenge comparable to the one he gave Michael Fassbender in Frank, a film that asked the actor to give a performance from within a papier-mâché head.)
Assisted by production designer Ethan Tobman, the What Richard Did director makes Ma and Jack’s living quarters a mutable space whose four walls abound with revealing little details. At no point, though, are we ever allowed to forget this is, in essence, a cage: a grubby, mouldy interior every bit as inviting as the one Maggie Smith inhabited in The Lady In The Van.
Dame Maggie, of course, could get out of her van when she wanted to and see the world outside. That’s a prospect denied to Ma and Jack until Room’s midway point, where it stops being a study of incarceration and becomes a thriller about a jailbreak. To disclose more would be a disservice, to both the movie and the reader. Suffice to say that what follows turns Room on its head, not least by introducing Brie’s parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) into a yarn that had previously seemed destined to remain a grippingly minimalist three-hander.
Larson, so good in 2013’s Short Term 12, is even better here in a role that requires her to be victim, rock and lioness, often at the same time. (The fact that Ma’s actual name is Joy presents the intriguing prospect that two of this season’s likely Best Actress nominees – Jennifer Lawrence being the other – will be recognised for playing like-titled heroines.)
It has been a breakthrough year for the 26-year-old Sacramentan, whose appearance here comes hot on the heels of playing Amy Schumer’s sister in Trainwreck – another mum, incidentally, who feels compelled at one stage to defend her boy’s legitimacy to a coldly unwelcoming grandfather. As terrific as she is, though, it’s Tremblay who emerges as the film’s trump card, the adorable youngster proving both charming and heartbreaking as he charts Jack’s painful passage from innocence to experience.
Room is a film about entrapment. Yet it’s also one about liberation, about letting go of one’s fears and moving on from trauma. At one point Jack asks to be shorn of the locks he has been cultivating since infancy. It’s a revelatory, transformative moment in a film you won’t find nearly so easy to say goodbye to.