There is a temptation to write Room off before even reaching for the door handle. It’s easy to dismiss a lot of modern literature, particularly the ‘literary sensations’, as high concept but ultimately quite shallow, lacking the richness and complexity of their predecessors. However, we have to put our prejudices to one side for now and admit that Room is perhaps one sensation that really deserves the hype.
Author Emma Donoghue adapts her own bestseller while Lenny Abrahamson, most recently known for the film Frank, takes on directing duties. Room is one those films where it’s best to know as little as possible, which is how I went in. We are immediately introduced into the ‘room’, a tiny, cramped space with only one skylight and a heavily secured, code protected door. The inhabitants of the room are Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a mother and son combo locked in limbo with no way out.
The enforced isolation has clearly taken its toll on Ma, her eyes orbited by heavy rings and her tatty sportswear ghosting about her. She makes pains to see that Jack is still educated into the ways of the world; motherly lessons of cake baking and stories. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the way in which Jack has become institutionalised into the ‘room’. It is his only home, his only way of life. The film has a wider point to say about how much place and environment affects us as human beings.
As the story takes a few (un-revealable) turns, it turns into something much more profound than the struggle to survive in the room. There is a startling scene around the midpoint, where the film changes completely. It will undoubtedly go down as one of the scenes of the year, a breathtaking, cathartic, edge-of-your-seat tour de force. But then we are left with the aftermath, after all the excitement.
This is supposedly the boring part, which Hollywood doesn’t like. There must be always be an active goal to chase heroically; a dastardly villain, a damsel in distress, a dog stuck up a tree. Instead, Donoghue and Abrahamson leave us with something much more interesting and indelible: reflection. I am reminded of some of the films of Claude Chabrol, ostensibly suspense thrillers, but when the excitement fades we are left with this strange, eerie aftermath. The villain has been caught but the consequences of the event are left to catch fire.
The film would crumble without the two superlative performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. Ma is lucid, sharp, compassionate but drained, trying to make the best of a torturous situation in order to save her son. Tremblay, meanwhile, gives one of the best performances by a child actor you will ever see. The emotional complexities of a boy torn between the only world he knows and the world that his mother tells him is out there for him, is perfectly embodied by young Tremblay.
Donoghue succeeds in turning her own work into a piece of cinema, which is no mean feat. Her initial idea had the potential to be quite gimmicky, but Donoghue transforms it into something much more universal and pertinent. Lenny Abrahamson’s direction is delicate and unshowy, honing on the little details of the world that Jack sees and letting the audience see through the imaginative, hopeful eyes of a little boy.