Room

January 28, 2016
Brie Larson in 'Room' (2015)
Brie Larson in 'Room' (2015)

At the same time Room was being shown in preview there was a news story about a doctor in Sweden who kidnapped a woman and held her in a purpose-built bunker for a week. Her ordeal would have lasted longer if the kidnapper hadn’t lost his nerve and taken his victim to a police station to tell a false story. Predictably, she told the truth.

Two years ago we heard about three women in Cleveland who had been held in captivity for a decade; while in 2008 there was the notorious case of Austria’s Josef Fritzl, who kept his own daughter imprisoned in the basement of his house for 24 years, where she had seven children by him.

These stories of kidnapping and confinement appear at such regular intervals it makes one wonder how many more women are hidden in basements and bunkers. This is the creepy thought one takes away from Lenny Abrahamson’s low-key drama about a young woman who has spent years in an impenetrable prison cell, where she has given birth to a son.

The movies have been here before, notably in William Wyler’s adaptation of John Fowles’s novel, The Collector (1965), and in countless thrillers, horror movies and exploitation flicks. Where Room differs from other entries in this unsavoury sub-genre is in the way it depicts confinement as a form of normality. The script, by Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the award-winning novel upon which the film is based, delves deeply into the psychology of captivity and survival.

Brie Larson plays Joy Newsome, a young woman who was abducted seven years ago by a man she calls “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers) and imprisoned in a dingy 11 X 11 ft. room. In this space, no more than a fortified garden shed, she has raised Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who has become the sole focus of her existence. In the room she is known only as “Ma”. She sees herself as a sole parent, and hides Jack in the wardrobe whenever her captor appears.

The film begins on Jack’s fifth birthday. Ma has decided he is now old enough to learn about the world outside the room, but this presents a problem because her son sees everything as a singular presence. They are not living in a room, there is only Room. He shares this space with Door, Toilet, Bed and Wardrobe, to whom he says good morning and good night.

Jack’s only sense of the exterior world comes from a skylight, and from an old TV set which Ma allows him to watch for no more than an hour a day. When Old Nick arrives for his evening visits, Jack is bedded down in the bottom of Wardrobe. There he remains, while Nick forces his attentions on Ma. It’s another ritual in a life circumscribed by repetition, but with dawning maturity Jack is becoming curious and fearful. He wants to know what is going on, and feels it is something scary and bad.

Jack’s growing awareness, along with the fact that Nick says he has lost his job, suggests a crisis is approaching. Ma wants Jack to have a normal life, and worries that Nick might be planning to kill them. Now that her boy is old enough to play a part, she begins to plot an escape. If I describe what happens it will spoil the suspense. Suffice to say that Room is not just a drama of confinement, but of adaptation. It looks at the way those years of isolation have changed Joy, and how they have affected the members of her family.

Jack is a work-in-progress whose world-view has been formed by the environment in which he has been raised. In the book, which I haven’t read, the story is filtered through Jack’s voice and his dawning consciousness. Abrahamson and Donoghue have avoided the staginess of a narrative voiceover and taken a more objective approach. We still experience the room through Jack’s eyes but it’s via the versatile medium of the point-of-view shot.

Much has been written about the performance of eight-year-old Jacob Tremblay as Jack, who is miraculous in this role. He is so natural, so translucent, that he never seems to be acting at all. In the unlikely event he can sustain this ability in later life, he’ll have a monumental career.

Room is also a breakthrough for Brie Larson, who has spent much of the past few years playing supporting roles. As Ma she must act cool with her captor, while feeling a growing sense of panic and desperation. Her maternal love for Jack is ferocious, but she also relies on him as the rock upon which she clings for her sanity. As a character she is subject to mood swings that are both plausible and alarming.

Although much of the action takes place within a confined space, Room is a movie that looms large in one’s mind. There is an underlying metaphor about growing up, about leaving the safety zone of the home and venturing into the world. In this story Jack and Ma each have their personal transformations to deal with, as they escape a tiny space that has grown to the size of a cosmos, and feel their smallness in a world we take for granted.

Room
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Written by Emma Donoghue, after her own novel
Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Tom McCamus
Ireland/Canada, rated M, 118 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 30th January, 2016.