There appears to be just three kinds of movies being made in Hollywood these days – remakes or reboots (MAD MAX, CREED), franchises (STAR WARS, the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, BATMAN) and something called “reality-based” films (STEVE JOBS, JOY, THE BIG SHORT, SPOTLIGHT, TRUMBO, THE REVENANT, THE DANISH GIRL). The films that fall into this last category are all, more or less, based on real people or real events.
ROOM also has its roots in reality. The movie is based on the best-selling novel by the same name written by Emma Donoghue, who came up with the story after hearing about the Fritzl case in Austria. (In that case, Elisabeth Fritzl had been held captive by her father, Josef, for 24 years in a hidden basement in her family’s home. During that time, Josef has physically and sexually abused her, and raped her numerous times resulting in the birth of seven children. Four of the kids remained with their mother in captivity (one had died a few days after childbirth), while the other three were raised by Josef and his wife.)
Interestingly, in 2013, Amanda Berry and her six-year-old daughter escaped from Ariel Castro’s suburban Cleveland, Ohio, home where they had been imprisoned for 10 years. (Castro had also imprisoned two other women at the same time.) Berry had apparently set up a kindergarten for her daughter while in captivity, acting as her teacher and “walking” her to school every morning. While this case was revealed after Donoghue’s book after written, it more closely resembles the story. It makes one wonder how many other people are being held in captivity that we don’t know about.
In ROOM, Ma/Joy (newly awarded Oscar winner Brie Larson, DON JON; THE SPECTACULAR NOW; SHORT TERM 12), 24, has been held captive in the soundproofed backyard shed for the past seven years. For the first two years, she cried every day, being repeatedly raped by her captor, “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers) and seeing no hope for the future. Then Jack (Jacob Tremblay) was born and Ma stopped crying. She had something to live for. In their tiny room, which they call “Room”, Ma has carved out a safe and peaceful life for herself and Jack in between regular visits from Old Nick who drops off food, clothes and supplies for the pair, and continues to rape her.
Everything in Room has a name. There’s Lamp, Sink, Rug, Plant and Cupboard. There’s also TV – Jack’s only window to the outside world, which he has been taught to believe is imaginary. Room is the whole world and everything outside Room is Outer Space. Skylight gives them a view of the sky and the occasional fallen leaf but not much more. As limiting as it sounds, Jack is happy in Room. He and Ma do yoga together, he runs track (Ma, we learn, was a high school track star) and he plays with Egg Snake, his favourite toy. Ma has created a whole world for Jack where he has everything he could possibly need.
When Jack turns 5, Ma decides that it’s time for the charade to end. She concocts a plan to get Jack out of Room and find someone to help them. For Jack, it’s a terrifying prospect. For the first time in his life, he’ll be apart from Ma and in a world that he’s still not sure even exists. But he and Ma do find freedom and then they have to deal with living in a much larger and more complex Room – the real world.
ROOM is a tour de force for both Larson and Tremblay. The two actors developed a strong bond during the production and it’s apparent in their performances here. Tremblay, who is acting in only his first film, shows the depth of emotions that we would expect to come from someone who has been in front of the camera for years.
The film started racking up audience and critics’ awards screened since it premiered at Telluride last September. By the time it hit mainstream cinemas two months later, it was being touted as one of the year’s best films. Everyone was also predicting that Larson would walk away with a Best Actress Golden Globe® and Oscar®, which she did. (She also won a BAFTA® along the way.) Tremblay, too, was also mentioned as being Oscar-worthy but, sadly, he was not nominated. He should have been because we have not seen acting like this from such a young person since Tatum O’Neal won an Oscar for her performance in PAPER MOON. (She still holds the record as the youngest winner in any category.)
The film was directed by Lenny Abrahamson, who has a brief but impressive resume. In 2014, he directed Domhnall Gleeson (STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS) and Michael Fassbender (STEVE JOBS) in the quirky musical comedy, FRANK. Abrahamson was also nominated for an Oscar® for ROOM, but with strong competition coming from Alejandro González Iñárritu (THE REVENANT), Tom McCarthy (SPOTLIGHT) and Adam McKay (THE BIG SHORT), it wasn’t going to be his year. It’s a safe prediction, though, to say that this will not be his last-ever Oscar® nod.
ROOM is a must-see film. After you’ve seen it, then go find Larson’s other films and watch those too.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 29:00.)
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