Review: Room

When I heard that The Room was back in cinemas and, what’s more, sneaking into Oscars contention – not least for its lead actress – I assumed it was some weird joke. Had I woken in Bizarro-world? But no. Tommy Wiseau’s cult ‘classic’ will remain on the midnight movie circuit for a while yet and the rest of the world can still be called credibly sane. Well, within the usual limits.

Instead, we have Room to contend with. From a screenplay by Emma Donoghue based on her own bestseller, the film depicts the minutiae of the mother-son relationship by unboxing it in the most extreme of circumstances. Joy (Brie Larson) has been imprisoned by a menacing unknowable man she calls Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) for seven years. In that time, kept in his shed-cum-dungeon, she has borne a son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), tellingly moulded like a mini version of herself. The story focuses on their relationship. How they live in ‘room’, the self-imposed rules that sustain their day-to-day, and the lies Joy tells Jack in order to protect him.

Director Lenny Abrahamson takes a significant step forward with this, his third feature; a step that initially seems to have been made by stepping back. For some time his film sticks to the same confined spaces as it’s characters. And, some arty establishing shots aside, he wisely chooses to let his actors hold court. Those of us paying attention will have seen greatness in Larson before (if Short Term 12 isn’t on your Netflix watch list, add it NOW), and so it goes here. She makes Joy a gritted, determined character, refusing to play victim for the sake of protecting her son’s perspective on the world, even if that perspective is one she has carefully warped for his own sake.

Now, kids can make or break films. And for a short while at least, I was very worried that Tremblay may not be up to the task, but as Room opens up, as it breathes, and as the story moves in directions that the uninitiated might not have been prepared for, he becomes a prodigious revelation. Larson may do the heavy-lifting upfront, but as Joy hatches an escape plan, it is up to Tremblay to take the load as the film evolves. It is when this starts to happen that the film fully starts to embrace it’s other more worldly concern; discovery.

Boyhood may have come close to capturing the truth of childhood by framing it against the (largely) humdrum and every day, but, in building for Jack such a vividly strange set of conditions, Abrahamson’s film is able to fully capture the sense of the new that is the spark of childhood and imagination. Jack – and the film at large – are frequently inspired, and Tremblay anchors it all with a performance all the more impressive for the lack of perceived effort. An initial bout of hysterics aside, he seems totally genuine, even when adjusting to overwhelming change. Once the world of Room is established, the deal is sealed. You believe in these two.

The same can’t quite be said of the film’s extreme situation; a flimsy set of conveniences which just about hold together as long as they can. Fortunately the ambition here extends far beyond the titular room’s four walls, but saying quite how would mean spoiling the journey to come. I find myself in a similar position to that I was in when trying to review Gone Girl; ostensibly only able to review half a film lest I set off all manner of spoiler sirens.

What can be praised is Abrahamson’s deft ability to shift perspectives without creating some sort of tonal seasickness. Frequently the film flips from being anchored by Joy’s experiences to Jack’s, regularly in the space of one scene. It’s as deftly played as it is understated. That it’s often not until after such scenes that their editorial complexity sinks in is a credit to the filmmaking. It’s as though Abrahamson is so (understandably) sure of his actors’ accomplishments that he feels safe to practice directorial sleight of hand in plain view. It admirably lacks ego and only services the film.

In the main then this is a two-hander between the film’s captivating leads, but there are notable presences in the peripheries. Though his screentime is limited, Bridgers brings a sad awfulness to Old Nick, but maybe I’m just pleased to spot Deadwood‘s Johnny Burns horribly reincarnated. Elsewhere, and more significantly, Joan Allen puts in some of her most memorable work for a while. A hairdressing scene ends with what ought to play as stiflingly sentimental. Miraculously, however, it instead comes off as honestly affecting.

All of which helps Room become a film that works by osmosis; the more time you spend in its presence the better it seems to be. There are niggles. The score is at times intrusive and overbearing, threatening to smother events that might play more honestly with it dialed back a hair or more, but overall I’m happy to say I was a doubter turned convert by the time the end credits announced themselves.

What’s more the film gives you plenty to ruminate over. How much risk do we put one another through with the ways we connect and maintain those connections? What matters most; a thing or the effects of a thing? How does one overcome? Can dependency become strength? There’s a lot to unpack in Room. You may find boxes within boxes.

Score: 4

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