It must be January, as having just seen The Danish Girl – an awards film if ever I’ve seen one – we now have Room, which has already seen lead actress Brie Larson win a Golden Globe for her performance (and later this week I get to see The Revenant, which is already looking like another DiCaprio hit). With Room however I have a prior knowledge, as I read the book for a book club I was in a few years ago, and while the story was excellent, its first-person viewpoint from the perspective of a small, isolated child was hard-going.
So it’s great that the film surpasses the book, in my opinion, with two brilliant performances and a strong story, though its pacing is so glacial that just under two hours felt like a lot longer.
Five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his mum Joy (Brie Larson) are prisoners of ‘Old Nick’ (Sean Bridgers), who abducted Joy seven years ago and is keeping her hostage in what Jack knows as ‘Room’. This is the only place Jack has ever known, but Joy’s desire to escape leads to everything changing for them both, and an uncertain future.
Usually child actors are either annoying, inept (not their fault to be honest) or a mixture of both, and it’s always a risk centring a film around a kid. However, director Lenny Abrahamson has struck gold with young Jacob Tremblay, who is remarkable. The character of Jack is complex and incredibly integral to the story, but Tremblay is excellent – he’s able to emote convincingly, and his relationship with Larson is painfully believable. None of us can really imagine what it must be like to grow up with a skewed, insular view of the world, and it’s a credit to the director and the young actor that Jack’s gradual understanding of the world outside ‘Room’ is believable from start to finish.
Larson meanwhile is devastating as Joy, who has to constantly fight despair and fury as an abductee whose son is all she has, but who also knows she must try to escape whatever the cost. The young actress seems to have suddenly graduated from comedies (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and 21 Jump Street) into serious acting, and I thought she was excellent. It’s hard to put yourself in the position of a prisoner, and be convincing, but Emma Donoghue’s book and screenplay work hard to articulate the conflicts Joy experiences, and Larson effortlessly inhabits the character. It’s not a surprise that she’s winning awards for the performance, and in some scenes it’s almost too hard to watch, because the emotion is so raw.
Beyond the main two characters, there’s a small number of other performances worth noting. Joan Allen and William H. Macy play Joy’s parents, though the latter is barely in the movie, but both character actors are very good at articulating, almost wordlessly, how parents must feel in such an horrific situation. Bridgers is disturbing yet a little insignificant as the kidnapper, and the director’s choice to hide his face grows the sense of dread until he then reveals ‘Old Nick’ in all his schlubby glory, and it kind of killed any tension. Among the other supporting cast, only Tom McCamus’ kindly stepdad Leo is worth mentioning, simply because he, like us, is almost an observer, and his relationship with one of the main characters is both sweet and touching.
I’ve deliberately left out anything that could spoil the second half of the film, but suffice to say the story might not go the way you expect if you don’t know the book. However, even knowing what was coming I was surprised at just how slow the pace of the film was at times – this is not a major criticism, taking the plot developments into account – but for me it was quite a surprise to discover only (just under) a couple of hours had gone. For some people, the dramatic scenes might be a bit too much either emotionally (this is hard-hitting stuff, especially where Larson is concerned), or a little too melodramatic, based on your perspective, but for me it was perfectly in the middle.
Cinematographer Danny Cohen seems to have taken inspiration from other colour-drained, dramatic movies like Prisoners or Seven, with ‘Room’ a shabby, grim cell in stark contrast to the too-bright, yet still drained outside world; while musically Stephen Rennicks utilises the indie favourite – the acoustic guitar – a little too much in a mostly forgettable soundtrack – characters and what they have to say are more important here to be honest.
Much as with The Danish Girl, Room is a character-based movie, and if that’s not your bag – and you don’t have the patience – then this isn’t for you. But for anyone else, it’s a very good, very well-acted story that looks into areas of abduction and incarceration that you wouldn’t really ever want to think about. Larson and Tremblay’s performances are excellent, and Room is another book-to-film adaptation that is far, far better than the book.