There's no way I wasn't going to review what is easily the best of the Oscar-nominated films. Frankly, I will be very, very surprised - ande delighted - if a better film is released this year.
Also, please note, I will be revealing no more than what was revealed in the film's trailer and in its general promotion, but, in terms of plot, there's actually not much the trailer doesn't cover. If you haven't seen the trailer or, obviously, read the book, consider this a slight spoiler warning BUT, and this is important, knowing whether or not our heroes escape their captivity is absolutely not, in any way shape or form, what the film is about. Feel free to read up on the entire plot, in fact, because this is one of those films where the plot machinations are absolutely secondary to the much deeper aspects of the film.
Still, if you want to know nothing going in, see the movie first and then come back and read this review. But, please, do see it.
The plot, in a nutshell, revolves around Jack, a five-year-old boy, and his young mother, here crucially only called "Ma", who have been trapped in the shed of the man who kidnapped Ma seven years previously and fathered Jack. There is, as I mentioned, absolutely nothing exploitative about these scenes and though the whole situation echoes far too many similar real-life cases, it's not really about that. Told almost entirely from the viewpoint of Jack - hence why his mother is only ever called "Ma" - this is mostly the story of the great lengths that a mother goes to protect her child, while, at the same time, the way that very child gives her life purpose and a reason to carry on. It's also about perception and the way that Jack sees this small shed, that he calls simply "Room", as literally the entire world: a viewpoint that is further cemented by his mother who taught him at an even younger age that anything not in Room is only as real as the things he sees on TV.
All this, however, is turned on its head when Ma decides that Jack is at an age where escape might well be worth the risk but first she needs to educate her child about something about which she has spent his entire life lying about. The rest of the movie, then, is a reflection of their time in Room as they do eventually escape (I told you I'd be spoiling this) and the umbilical-like connection that the two have is put to the test as they both try to come to terms with their newfound freedom. I won't say anything more than that but, as powerful as the film is when it is set in Room, it takes on all new levels of psychological complexity and thematic depth when Ma and Jack reenter the "real world" and their roles and relationships are twisted and redefined.
Much like my favourite film from last year, Love and Mercy, was a film of two halves where the two parts reflect and enrich one another, that Room is effectively two co-dependent and inter-connected films joined at the middle is just one of the many, many things that makes it both as exquisitely moving as it is and so utterly flawless in its film making.
Emma Donoghue's adaptation of her own novel is absolutely perfect, not only for turning a novel into something truly cinematic, but in its warm, witty dialogue; its fully fleshed-out characters and its great thematic depth. This is that all too rare kind of writing: one that hits the brain almost as hard as it hits the heart. This past year had many brilliant adapted screenplays but Donaghue arguably turns in the very best adapted screenplay of at least the past year - which is really no small feat for a first-time feature-film screenwriter.
Of course, with a script that good, it's rather crucial that the rest of the film does justice to it for it not to be a shamefully wasted opportunity. Fortunately, everyone rises to the opportunity and that perfect script is brought to stunning, vivid life by the most perfect acting, direction, cinematography and score imaginable. And, no, I don't use "perfect" lightly. True perfection is impossible but this is the sort of piece of art that deserves nothing but the most hyperbolic of praise.
Take the film's two lead actors, Brie Larson as Ma and seven-year-old-at-the-time Jacob Tremblay: is there any way to describe their performances as anything but "perfect". I cannot imagine ever seeing a better child actor than Tremblay who is simply jaw-droppingly, yup, perfect and, sorry Leo, but absolutely deserves to win best actor at this year's Oscars. Yes, even though he wasn't nominated.
As for Larson, I've long been a fan of hers for her work in small indies and her supporting work in everything from Scott Pilgrim to Community but her raw, layered work here is every bit as good as you may have heard. There is no more impressive category at this year's Academy Awards than those for best actress and best supporting actress but, even with that in mind, she is the true standout. The rest of the cast is uniformly good (a special shout out to Joan Allen especially) but this is all about the truly exceptional work by its two main leads.
This isn't just an actors' piece, though, because as crucial as they are in bringing Donaghue's story to life, this is Irish director's Lenny Abrahamson's film all the way. Abrahamson is not a name that is familiar to most of us South Africans as almost all of his past films were small Irish flicks that have failed utterly to reach these shores, at least in any sort of theatrical run, but he is clearly a guy to watch out for. Incidentally, I did track down his most recent previous film, Frank, and though it's nowhere near as powerful as this, it is pretty special in its own utterly offbeat and unconventional way.
But I digress. Lenny Abrahamson no doubt plays a large part in getting such a spectacular performance from someone as young as Tremblay (the only reason I could accept for Tremblay being left out of this year's awards season) but his storytelling sensibilities are exquisitely honed as they take a humble story about a mother and son being trapped in a shed and turn it into gripping, powerful cinema that can stand head to head with the best filmmakers out there.
With the help of Danny Cohen's gorgeous cinematography that excels at both turning a tiny room into a universe and back again and at depicting the expansiveness of a normal city in the eyes of a kid who has only ever seen the inside of something smaller than most film sets, Abrahamson gives this film the kind of cinematic heft that most people have been praising Mad Max and the Revenant for. Add to that an understated, melodic score by Stephen Rennicks that punctuates the film's emotion without driving it into the ground, and the film is as much a sensory experience as it is an emotional and intellectual one.
I could go on and on and on. Hell, I could probably write a whole separate paper about the things that Room has to say about the human experience but I've prattled on long enough. This is the kind of film that only comes along once every few years and is enough to singlehandedly restore one's faith in cinema as an artform and art as something genuinely worthy of our precious time. I cannot recommend it enough, but let's just say that I think this may be the Pan's Labirynth of the 2010s. And if you know me, you know that's really, really, really saying something.