James Phelan takes another look inside Lenny Abrahamson’s Room.
Who faces the biggest challenge in Room? The audience or Lenny Abrahamson and his creative team? The prospect of depicting such an intrinsically horrifying situation and making it palpable to any audience was a massive ask of all concerned. The covert imprisonment of a mother and child in a cramped suburban shed seems like the uneasy intersection of much too real real-life horrors and the tasteless end of exploitation cinema.
Thankfully, through a combination of inspired casting, sensitive direction and masterful writing, the end result is a powerful testament to the endurance of the human spirit. Without crucially ever being an endurance test for the audience.
In fairness, when faced with the constraints of depicting life within a small unadorned space, every department nearly to be firing to maintain both the overall conceit and viewer interest. And this supreme collective effort is expertly marshalled by the singular vision of Lenny. He is studiously unshowy within the creative restriction the ‘Room’ imposes but his steadiness and confidence seeps into the texture of the film. The bravery to hold a shot. To eschew swift edits and any sense of sensationalism. Here is a film that breathes and where we care about every breath the two principals take. There is no Fincher-esque drifting through air ducts or following cables through walls. This world is a solid, relentless island of isolation. Yet there are deep reservoirs of defiance, heart and even humour on this island too.
Room never shies away from being claustrophobic but neither does it shy away from warmth and humanity. The palpable love and resilience emanating from within Brie Larson’s character (initially known as Ma) is a wondrous beacon for the audience and for her child Jack. Brie’s performance is a beautifully calibrated feat. We glimpse her fragility. Her profound uncertainty. Her underlying growing dread. We literally see her swallow or swat away momentarily flickers of fear to protect her child from even their startlingly obvious and overwhelming proximity to real evil. The scope, complexity and nuance of this role is an acting Everest that Larson scales with both incredible effort and incredible ease.
Clearly guided by the overall warmth of Emma Donoghue’s initial prose and her own skilful adaptation of her novel, Room is actually at its best in the period of confinement. In less capable hands, Jack’s rituals of addressing inanimate objects might have been too cutesy but we witness all these routines as vital structures for survival. Ma’s imaginative use of the space for exercise, education and entertainment is that of a mother determined to fight stagnation and apathy at any cost. Her impassioned promises to Jack of a world outside the room are imbued with increased rising urgency as an escape plan is hatched to fool their captor known only as Old Nick.
I better flag some major spoilers from here on. I was shamefully unfamiliar with the novel and so didn’t know if the escape gamble would be successful. It certainly fed the tension of a sequence that is both uplifting and nerve shredding. However implausible the plan, it literally unfurls in a manner that will have audiences having heart palpitations. Jack’s first foray into the wider world is so unbearably fraught while still laced with a wondrous sense of liberation. Small details within this sequence are casually haunting. Personally, I found the lack of fight in Old Nick’s character when challenged to be both truthful and chilling. His willingness to walk away revealed so much in even his cowardly retreat.
Which brings us to the second half of the film where we witness Ma reclaiming her original name Joy while struggling to explain this new overwhelming reality to Jack. The initial sense of wonderment in the outside world is again filled with sublime specific moments. The depiction of the media interest in their plight seems a logical organic progression of the story but it moved the film into familiar ground. To be honest, this part of the film couldn’t help but naturally lack the focus of the first half. And oddly, I wasn’t the only one missing the ‘Room’. The script and film dares to circle round to the almost unimaginable truth that humans sometimes crave for a life they know above the unfamiliar and alien.
It’s also in the latter half that the casting became slightly problematic for me. Hands down, Joan Allen and William H Macy are superb actors and I’m always pleased to see them show up in anything. Apart from here. It’s weird but they feel too starry for the film. The second you see Joan Allen walk down a hospital corridor, the connotations of Bourne can’t help but kick in. It was no surprise to hear Lenny speak of Allen as one of his favourite actors and he has every right to work with her. Yet in a film where not recognising the cast was so pivotal to creating an imposing compelling reality, the spell was broken for me.
That idiosyncratic gripe aside, Room is a powerful raw rumination on the nature of family. It’s naturally not flawless but it is honest, unflinchingly and hopeful. I’d advise that you make some room in your life for Room .
And frankly, I found it funnier than Frank.