Anthony Kirby was at the 40th Toronto International Film Festival and saw Lenny Abrahamson’s Room
Emma Donoghue’s multi-award-winning novel is a masterpiece of interior monologue. Without the use of multiple voiceovers this technique is difficult to transfer to screen. As such, it is a great blessing that Emma Donohue acted as screenwriter in the film adaption of her novel, who better to keep the essentials of her novel in its dramatic transfer? While certain characters and scenes were cut for reasons of screen time and budget the film version of Room is a small masterpiece.
“ Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. Was I minus numbers?” asks Jack (Jason Tremblay).
“Hmm?” Ma (Bri Larson) does a big stretch.
So begins both novel and film.
Jack’s world is a cramped, sealed garden shed lit by a single skylight, and an electric lamp. Cinematographer Danny Cohen quickly establishes the claustrophobic nature of this shed. He employs muted colours and tight screen close-ups that frustrate the viewer’s sense of space. The camera places the viewer in very close quarters to Jack and his Ma. This room has a galvanized door with a combination lock. This lock can only be opened from outside. Neither Ma or Jack know the combination. Ma and the precocious Jack are totally dependent on Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) for food and medicine. They have staples but lack vegetables and take multivitamins.
Nonetheless Ma scrapes together enough eggs flour and margarine to make Jack a small birthday cake. They eat the cake complete with icing but have no candles or sparklers.
Ma has established a routine for Jack, on rising he has a breakfast of fruit loops and milk. He eats it with Meltedy Spoon, so called because it touched a pan of boiling pasta. As they eat, both hum popular tunes. Then wash the dishes and water a plant.
At 08:30 Ma allows Jack to surf their three channel t.v. his favourite show is Dora the Explorer . Ma has already explained to Jack that certain things like mountains, rivers, etc. exist in the real world. But that other things are fantasy. For Jack, however, Dora is real. He tells her of his superpowers now that he’s five.
Ma has developed a series of exercises to maintain Jack’s fitness. She moves their white table onto their bed and has Jack run round Room in a kind of C format many times. Jack’s reading and mathematical skills are beyond his years. Ma also encourages him to draw.
In late afternoon as shadows begin to lengthen Ma cooks Jack a light supper, then allows him to watch one more programme on tv. She then lies on Bed with Jack in her lap and reads to him from one of his five picture books. For his birthday it’s Dylan the Digger.
“Here’s Dylan, the sturdy digger! ” reads Ma.
“The loads he shovels get bigger and bigger. Watch his right arm delve into the earth. No excavator loves so much dirt.”
Then Ma reads to Jack from another book The Runaway Bunny. Jack knows the ending to this tale but loves it anyway. Then Jack wiggles round in her lap, sees a picture of Baby Jesus with his best friend and big cousin John The Baptist. Ma switches Lamp off now and they lie down and say the shepherd prayer about green pastures. Jack is ready for bed. Ma has devised a further routine for Jack as he about to go to bed. She points to Watch- it’s 08.57, that’s three minutes before nine thinks Jack. So he runs into Wardrobe and lies down on his pillow under a drawing Ma has done of him and wraps up in his grey fleecy blanket. Ma puts her head in.
She gives him five then squeaks the doors shut.
From the light through the slats Jack can see Ma getting into her sleep T–shirt. He falls into a light sleep. Beep beep. That’s Door. Ma jumps up and shuts Wardrobe tight. The cold winter air wakes Jack but he remains quiet. He looks through the slats but can only see Dresser and the curve of Table.
“ Look’s tasty ” Old Nick’s voice is deep.
“Oh! that’s the last of his birthday cake.”
“What’s he now… four?”
“ Five,” says Jack in a loud whisper.
“Jack,” says Ma angrily.
The bed begins to creak rhythmically. Jack counts fives on his fingers and reaches 217 creaks. Curiosity gets the better of Jack. He sneaks out of Wardrobe. In the half-light he almost falls over Old Nick’s gigantic shoes. This very large man is dead asleep beside Ma, fascinated Jack reaches and almost touches Old Nick’s face. Old Nick’s eyes flash all white. He grins. He says, “Hay Sonny”. Jack’s never heard this expression. He bolts for Wardrobe. Ma keeps screeching. “Get away from him,” then Jack listening hard hears Old Nick getting into his clothes. Jack waits an eternity but Ma doesn’t fetch him from Wardrobe.
Next day Room is dark longer than usual. Ma pours a glass of milk for herself but not for Jack, the light in Refrigerator doesn’t come on, that’s weird. Ma is clicking Lamp but he won’t wake up either. She shivers and checks the thermostat.
It’s below freezing. For Jack it’s a strange kind of day.
The following day they still lack power. They put on all their clothes and lie in bed just to keep warm.
“What if Room get’s colder and colder?” asks Jack.
“Oh! it won’t it’s April in three days” she says kissing him.
“It can’t be that cold outside.”
“What’s outside?” wonders Jack.
Ma decides to tell Jack the truth about Old Nick. The film tightens its narrative force as Ma devises an escape plan. They rehearse this many times. The plan involves Jack feigning a high fever and lioness Ma impressing on Old Nick that he must be brought to hospital. Jack follows the plan to the letter, jumping from Old Nicks pickup.
Running lamely on the street Jack is rescued by a neighbour with a friendly dog and given over to sympathetic police. Acting on Jack’s responses to their quiet questions they arrest Old Nick find Room and reunite mother and child.
At every step in the second half of the film Donohue and Abrahamson invite an intimate level of audience participation as they give weight to their characters’ post-traumatic stress disorder.
Somehow the press have heard of their escape and mother and child have their privacy invaded. Then they’re taken to an over-lit very white room at the local hospital. Dr. Mittal (Iranian-Canadian Cas Anvar) says that Jack “is at a plasticity stage of development (at age five) and may well get over the trauma he’s suffered.” Though she puts a brave front Ma’s wounds are deeper.
Though Room may have lost some of its intensity in its transition from page to screen it gains tremendously in the luminosity and truthfulness of its performances. Joan Allen is unsurprisingly excellent as Ma’s deeply relieved but still emotionally shattered mother, while William H. Macy brings intensity to the role of Jack’s Grandad, who can’t quite cope with the return of a daughter he’d given up for dead. Young Vancouver native Jacob Trembley is so unaffected as Jack that he virtually steals every scene that he’s in. He perfectly portrays Jack’s wonder and confusion in coping with a totally new environment.
Though all the performances are strong Jacob Tremblay as Jack and Bri Larson as Ma own this film. Well received at the Telluride Film Festival Room won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award at the recent 40th Toronto International Film Festival. It’s a beautiful film which should be widely seen.
Anthony Kirby October 29, 2015