If you’ve not seen Children of Men yet, you’re missing out, man. Alfonso Cuaron’s dystopian masterpiece boasts some of the most effective set design and world-building, visual and thematic cues from famous works of art, terrifyingly relevant sociopolitical commentary, thrilling action, poignantly realistic performances, and – most importantly – some of the most effective cinematography ever utilized in film. Chivo (3-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lebezki, whose nickname is Spanish for goat – a popular acronym for “Greatest Of All Time”) commands a camera that breaks common film conventions to engage viewers deeper into the world of infertile 2029.
Children of Men follows Theo, a government bureaucrat in a dystopian militant U.K. two decades after the human race has lost the ability to reproduce. Chaos is in the fabric of this society that still somehow manages to reflect trends of our own. Through a country riddled with conflict, he has to secretly guide and protect the first pregnant woman in almost twenty years. With Theo as our protagonist, we often expect to identify with his perception of and exposure to the realities of his world. However, as the plot moves along its linear path, the camera often becomes preoccupied with what’s going on in the background. That is, it briefly breaks away from Theo or whatever progression the film’s narrative is making in order to linger around to display the tragic details of this setting as a whole. When the camera actively breaks that identification and shows us imagery that the lead character doesn’t see or notice, we’re made forcefully aware in a purely visual way of the perspective of the film itself.
A particular instance in the third act exemplifies Cuaron’s method throughout the movie. It depicts our protagonists struggling toward their destination, as always, which moves the story forward. However, for a moment, the camera lingers on the area they’ve just left to briefly frame a mother cradling her dead son, visually composed to mirror Michelangelo’s sculpture La Pieta. La Pieta depicts Mary holding the crucified Jesus in her arms, questioning the cruelty of men. Whereas films sometimes have blatant references to famous artwork, Cuaron and Chivo extract the themes of art and put them back on the ground to add thematic context to the setting of the story. Such a shot is likely not necessary for progressing the story of Theo’s quest, but it offers viewers a deeper look into this world through intellectually gritty means. Even if you’re not familiar with the reference, you still elicit the feeling from it all the same. With an abundance of instances like this one, we can better flesh out the world of Children of Men in our own heads in the manner that Cuaron intends for us to.
Nonetheless, the inventive camerawork that Children of Men employs holds for more than just artful deviations. It extends to the realism and exhilaration of the action sequences throughout the film, giving a significantly emotional edge to each of these sequences. The film’s action sequences are rooted in sweat and desperation, with the scents of fear and anxiety ever-present, offering a more personal experience.
With the extensive use of long takes during thrillingly detailed set pieces, there is little room for feeling removed from the experience of the film. The camera is simply another actor here, transmitting information and reacting to the events of the story in much the same way Theo does. It’s in constant motion and constant fear, frequently in closed spaces or hectic chases. It will become startled and fall over from the impact of an explosion or be taken aback when a bit of blood hits the lens (and remains there throughout the entire sequence). Each sequence is filled with both this personal touch and this wealth of detail in order to plunge the audience into this world and fully expose them to its thrills, themes, and commentary.
This is ultimately one of the film’s enduring strengths: how it uses hyper-minute details to lull you into accepting the plausibility of this dire reality. There are bus advertisements that hawk trendy clothes for dogs (kids may be gone, but capitalism isn’t, so clothes for dogs seem to be the next step). Theo casually asks Julian if her parents were “in New York when it happened” and never explains what terrifying event “it” might have been. An elderly, white, German refugee in the background uses her native tongue to indignantly weep about being herded alongside Schwarzen. Again, we may not understand it all, but we feel it. Blood on the camera is an action-infused exhibition that encapsulates this aesthetic — an eerie moment that, once seen, can’t be shaken. This dystopia doesn’t feel like a metaphor or a cautionary tale; it feels like a revelation of deeper truth.
The camerawork of Children of Men, while expertly conveying the inventively and intensely entertaining action sequences, has the ability to shine a light on the sociopolitical paradoxes of our own world through the lens of examining its own setting. A paradox sits at the center of our modern world: while capitalism itself knows no borders, people and nations struggling to find their identities have sought repeatedly to tighten their borders and restrict peoples from crossing them. These refugees are increasingly displaced by the militaristic medley of neoconservative regimes and the worsening climate – a result of the unchecked expansion of capitalist enterprises. In Children of Men, these elements are all intimately interconnected. Yet, for everyone, it’s hard to see anything but the lead story; which is why the roving, lingering preoccupations of the camera are more than just asides. Children of Men is about so much more than a quest through this arbitrary dystopian society. Infertility is a plot device that presents the opportunity for these much deeper insights: the nuances of civilization, the way fear leads to the acceptance of oppression, the dichotomy of hope and faith in the face of futility, the tragedies of displacement during refugee crises, and the beauty of human life even in the scariest of situations.
The cinematography of Children of Men shows the potential of filmmaking: giving us a chance to examine our own worlds apart from the stories we choose to expose ourselves to, in an artfully interesting manner. By providing a disinterested break, they let us see the world bare for a moment of subjectivity.
Image Credits: Flickr