‘Children of Men’ sad but hopeful 

OWEN: Turns in great performance.
  • OWEN: Turns in great performance.

With all the things that seem to be converging to try and do us in — global warming, super viruses, Ruskie nukes and bioweapons gone missing, and terrorism, to name a few — even the most faithful among us has to be wondering these days whether God is rooting for the home team.

While this writer would prefer a quick and painless end — an asteroid strike might be preferable, for instance, to freezing to death in a Texaco-sponsored ice age — the new film “Children of Men” questions how mankind might react to being sentenced by the powers that run the universe to the ultimate slow death. As envisioned by visionary director Alfonso Cuaron, the result — as you might expect — isn’t the whole world laying down its weapons in favor of a couple rounds of “Imagine.”

“Children of Men” opens 18 years after a mysterious plague of human infertility has swept the world (in a brilliant piece of exposition, we learn this through the device of news reports of the death of the youngest man on the planet – a Brazilian named Baby Diego – who is stabbed in a barfight after a life spent in paparazzi hell). With the human race scheduled to be kaput in less than 75 years, the world has become a bleak and dangerous place, with governments turning on their citizens and fascism run rampant. In Britain, where the film is set, this manifests itself as a black-booted brand of xenophobia, with the government rounding up anyone who isn’t native born and forcing them into squalid deportation camps.

In the midst of this gray and bleak landscape, Theo Fanon (the superb Clive Owen, who reportedly passed up a job as the new 007 to star here) goes about his life as a low-level government bureaucrat. After he is kidnapped on the street one morning and transported to a meeting with his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), we learn of his secret past as an anti-government radical. In the nearly 20 years since Theo has seen her, Julian has risen to the top of her organization, which seeks to bring down the British government.

Knowing Theo’s governmental connections, Julian offers him money to acquire transit papers to the coast for a teen-age girl. Theo accepts, but can only get papers that specify he will escort the woman to her destination. Shuttled to a safehouse in the English countryside, Theo meets Julian’s twitchy band of rebels, and also meets Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), the foreign-born girl he is to accompany. Though he thinks at first that she is just another radical trying to slip out under the wire, he soon learns her secret: Kee is almost nine months pregnant — the first full-term pregnancy in 20 years. She is being smuggled to the coast to meet a boat sent from the mysterious Human Project; a group of the world’s greatest minds, who have supposedly established a democracy on a hidden island.

With Kee soon to give birth, their trip to the coast ambushed, and Theo questioning whether the Human Project might be a kind of urban myth, they make a run for the coast, with a splinter-faction of Julian’s group and the police in hot pursuit.

Bleak and often troubling, “Children of Men” is one of a whole genre of distopian epics that have debuted in recent years, from the pitiful (“The Island”) to the visionary (“V for Vendetta”). “Children” sets itself apart from the pack, however, by virtue of its beauty and its humanity. Though Ashitey could have been better utilized here (she’s mostly just an object moved around the chessboard), Owen again proves himself to be one of the best actors working today, delivering the kind of deep and meaningful performance that made him shine in his breakout film, “Closer.” In addition to generally breathtaking direction — including some virtuoso-grade handheld work during the film’s tensest scenes — “Children of Men” offers some genuinely goosebump-inducing moments, as when Theo and Kee spend a night in an abandoned elementary school, overgrown and useless without children to fill it; and the moment when a full-scale military assault on a rebel stronghold is brought to a hushed standstill on both sides by the cries of Kee’s newborn baby.



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