While giving the impression of one who could go anywhere and succeed in anything, the Irish writer-director Lenny Abrahamson has, in a series of increasingly ambitious features, worked through the themes of entrapment and liberation. His 2004 debut Adam & Paul made tragicomic, Beckettian play with a pair of addicts held in situ by bodily frailty and the crushing weight of their needs and desires; 2007’s Garage offered a study of a small-town sadsack who seemed unlikely to travel beyond his workplace forecourt.
2012’s What Richard Did, Abrahamson’s first foray into literary drama, found a young man forced to navigate a moral maze after a life-changing accident; 2014’s Frank, the director’s US debut, hinged on a creative big brain trapped inside his own papier-mâché head. With Room, a retelling of Emma Donoghue’s roundly bookclubbed bestseller, that entrapment becomes more literal still: this is another of pop culture’s ranging responses to the Josef Fritzl story, falling somewhere in between the austere Austrian chiller Michael and Netflix’s zappy comedy The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Donoghue’s always was a compelling dramatic conceit: a young mother and son, confined to a soundproofed annexe for reasons initially unknown. From the sallow, blotchy complexions of Joy (Brie Larson) and her boy Jack (Jacob Tremblay) – and the fact the kid, who’s never been outside, is introduced celebrating his fifth birthday – we know they’ve been here some while, yet the film (adapted by Donoghue alongside Abrahamson) quickly evokes and inhabits this space: over here, the TV with dodgy reception, over there, the closet doubling as a bedroom.
In so doing, Room allows time to better understand how these characters occupy it: the long afternoons where there’s nothing to do but pick at the carpet and hope that mouse reappears out of the brickwork, those arguments where both parties literally leave themselves with nowhere to go. The chilly-sounding premise is humanised by universal concerns about raising a kid – a tricky task at the best of times, more so when you’re stuck with the blighter 24/7 for five years straight. (There are surely easier prison stretches.)
“There are two sides to everything,” Joy observes, and the film establishes an unusual conflict between the child’s fragile innocence and the mother’s horribly bruised experience. Her frantic attempts to maintain or redefine the mythology of “Room” (as it’s known) as a completely safe environment should chime with any parent or parent-to-be: the question Donoghue framed, which echoes more vividly in encroaching Dolby surround sound, concerned how one might nudge one’s offspring into this world without letting on too much of its terrors. What stories do we tell our children?
Maybe it was inevitable in the cramped circumstances, but Abrahamson works closely with Larson, already established as among the shrewdest and most intuitive actresses (Short Term 12, Don Jon), and especially with Tremblay, an uncommonly sensitive and expressive performer, to evoke the absolute primacy of this bond – each the only thing the other has left, the other’s best hope of survival in some form – until its fraying ends can be knitted into a legitimately tense escape bid.
For as readers of the novel will know, the pair’s entrapment forms only half the story – that what seems like the end of one tale (a suburban Count of Monte Cristo) in fact forms the beginning of another. Some have found Room’s second half conventional: its raw material suggests an afternoon TV movie, playing out in cosy lounges populated by semi-familiar faces. Yet even these scenes are heightened by Abrahamson’s rare gift for dramatising subjectivity: we’re now inside Jack’s head, peering out at what appears a foreign, if not entirely alien landscape.
As in Frank, this filmmaker comes eventually to survey the chaos of North America – and perhaps that of the Western world entire – with the widest of eyes, and he takes a whole lot in: sudden flurries of activity in even the homelier spaces, the surreal allure of pancakes and fresh fruit. (Late on, he even finds fresh ways of showing two boys kicking a football around.)
The remarkably moving results suggest many things, not least Abrahamson’s ability to winkle out the powerful emotions and images of real worth lying in wait between the lines of any given text. To most audiences, however, I’d hope Room might stand as the anti-Gone Girl: a high-profile adaptation from which all traces of cynicism have been banished, replaced by feeling. From the first line of Donoghue’s novel to the closing frames of Abrahamson’s film, this was an exceptional story to tell.
(MovieMail, January 2016)
Room premieres on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.