Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Major Players: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay
Out Of Five: 4.5
This one quietly crept up on me and just about everybody else. It was only when Room emerged at last year’s London Film Festival that the word trickled out and rapidly became a flood. And the word was that Lenny Abrahamson, who’d given us the bizarre yet eminently likeable Frank in 2014, had come up with the goods. Not just that, but it was something really special.
Imagine living in a room that’s just 10 feet square. No windows, just a skylight in the roof, and that space has to be your bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen and everything else. And you’re never allowed outside. It’s all Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has ever known, living in the room with Ma (Brie Larson) since the moment he was born. She, on the other hand, had a life in the outside world until she was confined at 17. She tries to give Jack as stimulating and normal life as possible, given their limitations, but as he grows older and inevitably more inquisitive about everything, she has to find a way of escaping and confronting something even more formidable than life inside Room. The outside world.
The film’s adapted from Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name and she’s also responsible for the screenplay. Thankfully, means that fans of the book won’t be disappointed. It’s a film and a book with an ambivalent title: Room isn’t just the name of the place where Ma and Jack live, but it also represents space – one that keeps you captive, yet one that also gives you the much-needed freedom to breathe and live. Ma has given everything a name, as a way of teaching Jack to speak and extend his vocabulary. So, on the morning of his fifth birthday, he gets out of bed and says good morning to Plant, Sink, Toilet and Wardrobe, as well as his invisible dog, Lucky.
It’s a film of two halves, the first set inside those ten square feet. The second is elsewhere, but it would give away too much to tell you where and what happens. Suffice to say that it demonstrates that the outside world is all too intrusive, a long way from what Jack has experienced on TV and far more frightening in its complexities. And the first half has loud echoes of the Aerial Castro kidnapping case in the States: this time there’s one girl instead of his three, but her child’s father is still her captor. The neighbourhood has no idea what’s happening under their nose and the sheer banality of his life – out of work for a while, driving a red pick-up truck, living in a wooden slatted house with a shed in the garden – is quietly shocking.
And while the narrative is in two parts, the story itself is multi-layered, seen mainly through the eyes of Jack who acts as the occasional narrator. Stockholm Syndrome comes into it, but not with Ma getting attached to her captor, who they refer to as Old Nick. It’s more a case of Jack getting attached to Room: it’s the only place where he feels safe and, when Ma suggests an alternative, he rails against it.
Both Ma and Jack are remarkably resilient in their confinement, with Ma showing an inventive streak in her ways to keep the youngster amused and provide him with some form of education. But even she can’t get him to understand the reality of their situation: it all gets jumbled up with imaginary dogs, toy cars, a mouse and the fact that his birthday cake doesn’t have candles on it. It’s frustrating for both of them, but in different ways and she regularly loses patience with him. This is no sugar coated mother-and-son relationship, although it’s an extremely close one, full of genuine love and affection. Yet again, though, Jack’s never known anybody else.
The Room of the title is dingy and grubby, despite Ma’s efforts. Despite being so small, it frequently feels much bigger, as scenes are concentrated on particular parts of the room – the wardrobe, the bed, the cooker. It’s only when the camera pans out to give us a general view that we realise how cramped and uncomfortable it must be. Given Jack’s boisterous nature and Ma’s complete awareness of their situation, it’s amazing they haven’t cracked under the strain long ago. But they’ve survived, despite living at their captor’s whim and Ma being the victim of systematic abuse. We’re never shown that, just given the occasional sound effect and left to imagine it for ourselves.
Room is definitely special, a film that overwhelms you with dread at the sound of Old Nick’s footsteps and immerses you in the ups and downs of Ma and Jack’s relationship. At the centre of it are two remarkable performances. As Ma, Brie Larson is full of frustration and hugely protective of her little boy, and Jacob Tremblay delivers an astonishingly mature performance as Jack. The two of them genuinely look like they haven’t breathed fresh air for years: Ma has spots, sallow skin and bad teeth, Jack’s never had his hair cut so he’s easily mistaken for a little girl and has purple shadows under his eyes. They may be individuals in their own right, but their bond is so close that they often seem to function as one and any separation causes enormous distress.
Tender, unsettling and hugely moving, Room is unlike anything you’ll see in cinemas at the moment. And that is one of a whole raft of reasons for seeing it. It’s just unmissable.
Room is released in the UK on Friday, 15 January and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 14 January.