[Note: I reveal what some might consider to be a plot spoiler below, just to warn you if you haven’t yet seen this film, though the information in question was contained in Room’s trailer and has been widely acknowledged in just about every review and related interview I’ve seen. I’m going to talk candidly about the story, though, so beware.]
One of the highly regarded indies from last year’s festival circuit, Lenny Abrahamson’s Room finally arrives in the UK after receiving months of praise from US-based critics and audiences, as well as four rather noteworthy Oscar nominations: for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay (Emma Donoghue adapting her own novel) and Best Actress (Brie Larson). Thankfully it’s a film that lives up to the hype, with Abrahamson – who directed last year’s quirky and highly enjoyable Frank – overseeing an emotionally-draining and intelligently-told story that commands your attention from the opening moments to the final scene. It features two excellent central performances by Larson and Jacob Tremblay, who play a mother (Ma) and her five-year-old son (Jack) respectively, both of whom are kept as prisoners by sadistic kidnapper and rapist ‘Old Nick’ (Sean Bridgers). The room that they’re locked inside, and in which they must sleep, cook, eat and wash, is a 10ft x 10ft garden shed that has been soundproofed and reinforced with a coded door. Each night Jack obediently goes to sleep in his wardrobe/makeshift bed while Old Nick enters ‘Room’ and rapes Ma; thus we realise that Old Nick is Jack’s biological father. Abrahamson chooses not to show any of these assaults taking place, instead opting for off-screen diegetic sound and using the scenes in question to further our connection with Jack, shooting entirely from his perspective inside the wardrobe. Indeed the audience sees life in ‘Room’ mainly (though not exclusively) from the child’s point-of-view. He has never known a life outside, and he accepts the lies his mother tells him about the world unqestionably, but his imagination is still akin to that of a child raised in an ordinary environment; his appearance may be startlingly feral but Jack often seems like a normal kid, and it’s easy to identify with his playful happiness.
Abrahamson and Donoghue concentrate on the room’s objects in order to help convey Jack’s take on the environment. A chair isn’t simply a chair in Jack’s eyes; it’s a living, breathing thing: ‘Goodnight Chair, goodnight Lamp, goodnight Desk’ is the child’s nightly mantra. Similarly the skylight in Room’s roof is regarded as a magical portal (through which Jack was ‘magically zapped’ into his mother), and it’s filmed in a way that invokes a sense of wonder, the sky above representing entirely different things to the two main characters. Toys take on even more significance because they’re used to reveal Jack’s state of mind at any one given moment. There are homemade eggshell snakes in Room; a small boat floats in the toilet cistern; when Old Nick gives Jack a remote-control car for his fifth birthday the following scenes reveal how healthy Jack’s imagination is, even though the child eventually rejects the gift. (This act seems to be a catalyst of sorts, and shortly thereafter Ma begins to explain the reality of the world and their situation to Jack.) There’s an obvious contrast with the second half of the film, after the pair escape: in the more expansive house owned by his grandmother (Joan Allen), Jack can play with a whole host of toys that have been donated by well-wishers, but the effect of moving from the only place he has ever known to the wider world has caused the child to become traumatised, and symbolically he rejects them. Later, as Jack becomes more comfortable in the new environment, Abrahamson shows him playing with Lego; the child chooses to build what looks like a replica of Room.
The second hour of Room explores the way in which Jack and Ma react differently to their freedom. Their bond is extremely strong when they are in captivity but it is threatened when they move outside as both struggle to adapt to the new environment and the effect of leaving their previous lives behind. Jack’s initial reticence around other people gradually subsides, and he is shown to be adapting slowly to the world, even though he chooses to occupy the smaller spaces in his family’s house (behind bars on the landing, inside an airing cupboard, etc). Eventually, in a significant development, he makes a friend and plays football in the back garden, perhaps experiencing the pleasure of being able to run free in an open space for the first time. But up until that point Jack simply wants to return to Room with his mother, where he was happy. Understandably for Ma – by now known as Joy – the opposite is the case; her ordeal, which lasted for more than seven years, is beyond our comprehension. She is traumatised and can’t cope with the mental scars resulting from her abuse, her fragile state of mind exacerbated by wider family issues and the attendant pressures of her immediate situation (TV news interviews, reporters camped on the street outside, legal issues). The story obviously brings to mind similar real-life cases, in particular the publicly-known facts of Elisabeth Fritzl’s long spell in captivity. However given that we enter the story seven years after Joy’s abduction, as well as the lack of scenes that show Old Nick’s arrest or trial (his arrest is mentioned in passing), the film is less about the complete ordeal and more about the developing relationship between the two main characters, as well as the way in which each tries to come to terms with the change to their life after they are set free. (There’s a suggestion that Joy’s mental state is improving by the end, but thankfully the writer and the director are wise enough not to suggest the trauma of seven years of sustained abuse can be shaken off within a few weeks.)
Abrahamson’s cinematographer Danny Cohen uses a large number of close-ups in the first half, when the pair are locked in Room. That, as well as the use of a variety of angles (it looks as if Abrahamson has deliberately avoided the repetition of any one perspective), makes the small shed look much bigger than it actually is (an idea the director returns to at the end of the film). The second half, which is mainly set in the home owned by Joy’s mother and stepfather (Tom McCamus), offers a similarly inventive take on space, the director refusing to reveal the full extent of the house, as if it’s environs are limitless. The light entering Room is strictly controlled and fleetingly-glimpsed; on the outside it blinds Jack when he escapes and pours through huge windows when the victims are first taken to hospital. The shift in locations, and the direction taken by the story, means that the two leads are required to give very different performances across both halves of the story. Larson is utterly convincing while she is held captive and conveys Joy’s emotional turmoil after she escapes Old Nick with great skill. I was completely convinced by her acting and I’m pleased to see her hit a career high; it’s exciting to ponder where she will go from here. The same can be said for Tremblay, who is a real find, and a precocious talent; it’s harder for child actors to sustain their careers and many fail to equal their early peaks, but I hope he succeeds. Credit must also go to Abrahamson for his direction of the pair, which is sound; the interviews in which he has discussed his methods (particularly regarding his direction of Tremblay) show plenty of consideration and have been illuminating. Thanks largely to the acting and writing I felt emotionally-drained by the end, which is as it should be when you watch a story about such grim material, but Room is an uplifting experience nonetheless. Which I would say counts for some achievement.
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson.
Written by: Emma Donoghue. Based on Room by Emma Donoghue.
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Tom McCamus, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy.
Cinematography: Danny Cohen.
Editing: Nathan Nugent.
Music: Stephen Rennicks.
Running Time: 117 minutes.