Michael Hayward's Blog

VIFF 2015: "Room"

Michael Hayward

I’d avoided Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel Room when it was getting so much acclaim; I just wasn’t sure that I wanted to immerse myself in such a dark setting for so long: a young woman held prisoner inside a small outbuilding by a violent predatory male, imprisoned for so long that she’d given birth and raised a five-year-old son, Jack, in that same room. The young woman (she’s referred to as “Ma” in the novel, which is narrated by Jack) had raised Jack to believe that their one room was all that there was to the world, and that the things they saw on their small TV screen existed only in TV, which was a kind of alternate, imaginary universe. It was a daring conceit, which required a certain suspension of disbelief; it really only works if you completely believe in the naivety of the boy. The film version of Room (a Canadian-Irish production, directed by Lenny Abrahamson) requires a similar suspension of belief, but Jacob Tremblay, the young Vancouver actor cast in the role of Jack, is astonishing; in fact he almost steals the movie from his costar, Brie Larson, who plays Ma. If anything makes Room work, it is Jacob.

But I had significant difficulties with the film, which I believe should have been much, much darker, given the subject material. To kidnap and confine a young woman, to repeatedly rape her over a period of years, is one of the most depraved crimes imaginable. Cases like this are—fortunately—extremely rare (author Emma Donoghue was present at the VIFF screening I attended, and mentioned that she knew of “only four or five” such cases) and the perpetrators are inhuman (as we would normally understand the work “human”).

Room the novel is told from Jack’s point of view; he is generally cheerful, trusting in everything he has been told. As a result Donoghue can be allowed to (in effect) “sugar coat” what is in actual fact a very grim situation. This was, I think, one of the reasons that the novel attracted so much attention: it was a daring and very successful fictional reimagining of a dark factual event. But the film version of Room tells the story as a “two hander”: we are now outside the situation looking in, and we see events through adult eyes, rather than through the eyes of Jack. We should really feel Ma’s fear (as Jack alone would not); but we don’t; or not nearly enough.

We quickly grow to love Jack, and to admire the almost superhuman tenacity of Ma; we want them to find a way out, a way to survive. But—for the reasons noted above—I’m just not sure that the film earned its intended-to-be-cathartic ending: the camera rising above the battered shed once known as Room, rising into the overhanging trees as Jack and Ma (accompanied by two police officers) turn their backs and leave it behind forever, with triumphant orchestral music building to a meant-to-be-satisfying closing chord.



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