Because of (rather than despite) its built-in grimness, a dystopic vision can be alluring for the wrong reasons -- instead of illuminating the tensions of the Now by heightening them in the Tomorrow, the genre's inherent despair often just strokes the crotches of defeatist teens everywhere. (I don't exclude myself from this misreading: as a youngster I loved Orwell for creating a world that was more miserable than my high-school, surely as poor a reduction of an original work as the movie version of Moore's V for Vendetta.) To its credit, Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men suggests faith as the main thrust behind its headlong rush into a catastrophic near-future. Unshaven and haggard, Clive Owen pauses amid the distressed crowd in a café to catch a glimpse of TV coverage (the world's youngest person, 18-year-old "Baby Diego," has just been killed), grabs his coffee and exits, stops a few meters away to spike it with alcohol, the café is suddenly decimated by an explosion -- one unbroken take. It is 2027, the world is a smoldering junkyard, London lies in a permanent state of siege where illegal immigrants are rounded up and dispatched via Holocaust-Sarajevo-Guantánamo imagery, humanity awaits its end in an inexplicable bout of infertility (a delightful explanation comes as a joke from a granola Michael Caine, who makes the screen just about bulge from his pleasure in playing old hippies). Baby Diego was a "wanker" to ex-activist Owen, who's past giving a shit; his numbness is interrupted by ex-wife Julianne Moore, now the leader of a radical group needing someone to smuggle a young refugee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) out of the nation.
A couple has been torn between revolution and apathy, transit papers are needed: the Casablanca connection has been noted, but the film's bustle has no space for romance, so its Ingrid Bergman is readily dispatched in a startling auto skirmish that reframes itself over and over as it hurtles down the road, another one-take wonder. The treasure being guarded is revealed as Ashitey shows Owen her swollen belly in a pen full of cows, one of various Nativity nods bobbing in and out of the story; insurgents are as brutal as the government they hope to depose, so Owen springs Ashitey out of their camp and escorts her through a viciously decomposing order towards the ocean, where hope is a ship tagged "Tomorrow." (Ex-midwife Pam Ferris laments the lack of children's voices in their world. Guess what we last hear as the screen goes black.) Suicide kits are handed out for free and schoolyard murals have become hieroglyphs, but as in A Scanner Darkly, the future is Now in Children of Men, and Cuarón makes sure that "The Uprising" is scrawled on a wall next to Arabic writing, and that the bombing of the prisoner camp resembles a certain liberation of Baghdad. Few recent films have so stunned me in segments, and so frustrated me as a whole. Cuarón dazzles technically, but his livewire virtuosity (pillaged from Gillo Pontecorvo and Haneke's Time of the Wolf) formulates its own showy tyranny -- new life can momentarily hush gunfire, but only after it's been tracked through the bowels of a decimated edifice in a long, handheld bout of scuttling that expresses not so much immediacy as directorial vanity. Children of Men has fury, but not the kind that explores its images and ideas: The key scene might be Danny Huston's object d'art storage, itself an oblique gag (out of A Clockwork Orange) that exposes the film as the eclectic grab-bag it finally is.
Pointedly absent in his latest film, kids have played a central role in Cuarón's desultory oeuvre -- from the prepubescent expressionism of A Little Princess and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to the ardent adolescent pangs of Great Expectations and Y Tu Mamá También, the burgeoning consciousness of youth is his constant theme. Yet it falls for Guillermo del Toro, Cuarón's buddy and fellow Mexico-to-Hollywood auteur, to give that theme its lasting expression, intensifying it with his own obsessions. Insects, Catholicism, gooey textures against metallic mechanisms: Pan's Labyrinth is a veritable del Toro compendium, although with a new sureness of effect and fluidity to go with the kinetic fantasias of Cronos, Mimic, and Hellboy. Spending her first night at her new residence, an isolated military base with creaking floors and surrounding forests, the 10-year-old heroine (Ivana Baquero) lays her head on the pregnant belly of her widowed mother (Ariadna Gil) and spins a bedtime story to her unborn brother: with one single CGI swoop, the camera contemplates the fantastical, the concrete, and the zones blurring the two. Set in Spain in 1944, it is a film of divided, paralleling worlds, with young Ofelia plopped in a cruel realm where the ogre is the uniformed sadist (Sergi López) who represents the ruthless oppression of Franco's "new, clean Spain," the guy her mother insists she call "father." Rebels are hunted in the woods by day, by night "fairies" beckon the girl into the ancient labyrinth in the garden, where she's made princess by a mossy Faun ("very old, very tall, smells of earth") and promised immortality.
Where Children of Men samples from Picasso, Pan's Labyrinth shoots for Goya; however, rather than hanging Guernica beside a nudging Pink Floyd quote, del Toro aims to embody the mix of horror and wonder bleeding from Saturn Devouring his Son or The Incarnation. Ofelia crawls through the slime of a tree trunk to find a giant bullfrog that turns itself inside-out, later on a piece of chalk cuts an opening into a wall leading to the Pale Man, a sort of molten skeleton who stashes its peepers on a plate; in the world outside, the Captain smashes a poacher's face open and contemplates the best tools with which to torture prisoners. (Brutality of all types darkens painterly images: among the many indelible visions is a wounded rebel pitiably waving away the barrel of the pistol pointed at him by a fascist.) The housekeeper (Maribel Verdú) bravely helps the insurgents from within López's kitchen and takes on the beast with a knife, yet to del Toro dreaming is no less a means of resistance -- Ofelia's fantasies are fed by the tyrannies of the system around her, but, fueled by her youthful openness, they also evoke hope in the future's potential for renewal. For all the assorted horrors, Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth both load their optimism on the shoulders of the newborn, here severing a barbaric order's need to maintain its blind devotion to oppression via a heir; by far the most personal and coherent work, del Toro's film is itself a heir, fully deserving of its place in a distinguished political-fabulist lineage tracing back from Laughton's The Night of the Hunter to Erice's Spirit of the Beehive and Argento's Phenomena.
If the monsters in Pan's Labyrinth expose oppression, the ones in Notes on a Scandal contribute to it. Judi Dench's dour caricature of a geriatric gorgon predictably got end-of-year hosannas, yet the character is but a reactionary demonization, the bulldyke as a bundle of desiccated neuroses who turns alive only when predatory. Robert Aldrich challenged the stereotype through corrosive heightening in The Killing of Sister George, and, four decades later, here we are back with the self-loathing vampiress so one-sidedly and safely villainous that it's a miracle she doesn't somehow get crushed by a falling tree a la Sandy Dennis in The Fox. But such self-awareness of absurdity is beyond director Richard Eyre, who stages the story (bitter, crabby schoolteacher Dench becomes witheringly obsessed with her new colleague, boy-sucking bohemian Cate Blanchett) with a tastefulness both ponderous and dishonest -- a combination nicely matched in the screenplay by Patrick Marber, again proving that misanthropic "shocks" (remember Closer?) remain the surest way of baiting critics in ersatz art. Between this and Miss Potter, it's no wonder Britannia has dried up into the future of Children of Men; watching the turgid Dench-Blanchett duels, graffiti spotted by Clive Owen from the train popped into my head: "Last one to die please turf off the lights."
Reviewed January 12, 2007.