Room, the gripping new film based on Emma Donoghue’s best-selling novel, finally arrives this week. The wait has been worth it. Directed by Dubliner Lenny Abrahamson, Room is both a white-knuckle thriller and a poignant meditation on the power of parenting. Cahir O'Doherty previews the film that seems certain to be an Oscar contender.
The first hour of director Lenny Abrahamson’s gripping new film Room, based on Emma Donoghue’s 2010 best-selling novel of the same name, is filled with so much tension that it’s almost unbearable.
Locked away in a tiny 11 by 11 foot shed, where they cannot be seen or heard, we watch as a young woman and her now 5-year-old child named Jack are held captive against their will by a serial rapist.
Having been conceived and born into these horrifying circumstances, Jack knows no other reality. To protect him, his mother has created an elaborate fantasy world with its own rules, but that world is as precarious as their circumstances and it looks increasingly ready to come crashing down around them.
First we learn what their daily lives look like. Trapped together in a confined space, they have to fall back on their imagination to give their days some color and meaning. Birthdays are celebrated, books are read, exercise is taken and tall tales are spun.
This process has understandably mixed results. Jack comes to believe that the people on the TV are not real, that there is no big wide world outside of the little room that they live in, and that the only people who really exist are Ma, himself and the man they both call Old Nick.
Based on the notorious and all too real Elisabeth Fritzl rape and abuse case in Germany, Donoghue was inspired to write Room first as a book and then as a screenplay to examine how the powerful bond between a mother and child can endure even in the most extraordinary situations.
Held captive for 24 years in a concealed basement of her family home by her own father Josef who repeatedly abused and raped her, Room is a fictionalized telling of Elisabeth Fritzl’s real life horror tale featuring a young woman who has been captured and held under similar circumstances.
“It happened to be the Fritzl case that inspired the book but really my thinking and my interests went way beyond that,” Donoghue, a native of Dublin, told the Irish Voice at the time of the books release.
“I was trying to bring the normal experience of parenting into this abnormal situation. I’ve read about children who were locked up in every sense: children who were raised in prisons alongside their mothers because in many countries they do that. I read about children in concentration camps. I read about children who were hidden away in attics, basements and hen houses because their parents didn’t want to admit to them.
“All sorts of cruelties and miseries and neglect. And I was trying to find that line between survival and permanent damage.”
If that was her goal with the screenplay too -- and it clearly was -- then she and director Abrahamson have admirably succeeded and in many ways have even surpassed the original material.
Room succeeds as a portrait of how human love can press back against the cruelties of human evil. It’s also a meditation on how the bond between a parent and child can often miraculously withstand the worst that is thrown at it.
Actress Brie Larson, 25, gives a remarkably complex and convincing Oscar-worthy performance as Ma, the mother in the film. From Room’s opening scenes we see Ma alternate between everyday delight in her child, then switch over to exasperation, and then deep fear for his safety, then terror that his one and only chance to escape might easily slip away.
Without giving away the details of the plot, the prospect of an escape haunts every frame of the opening hour, and after the potential escape the consequences of a long abduction come into play.
Abrahamson has also filled every scene in the film with top tier actors, including Joan Allen as Ma’s mother, William H. Macy as her father, and newcomer Jacob Tremblay as the elfin Jack, who is lost at sea in the big wide world outside of his room that he was taught to believe didn’t exist.
In examining the bond between mother and child Donoghue, 46, closely examined her own relationships and attitudes to her own two children Finn and Una, who she is raising with her same sex partner, a college professor in London, Ontario.
The frustrations felt by Ma in the film are often versions of the real life frustration experienced by Donoghue herself. It was important to her that her own real life relationships inform the ones in the book and film, the better to copper fasten their reality.
“I’m a much more salty and bad tempered mother than the one in the book. But I’m not known to be a bad tempered person otherwise,” Donoghue said.
“I’m usually considered to be equable and calm yet I shout at my children every day. I mean I don’t shout at them all day. I try to be great company in between times, so they’ll have something nice to remember. But they drive me to distraction.”
So just like in the book, in the film neither Donoghue nor Abrahamson are interested in creating a long-suffering saint out of Ma. Instead they present a flawed but recognizably complex character trapped in a ghastly predicament and in the process they manage to make Ma all the more sympathetic.
There are good days in Room when Old Nick doesn’t come to visit and they have enough to eat and the place to themselves. But there are bad days too when the electricity and heating are cut off and Old Nick threatens them with violence.
Audience members are held on the edge of their seat in a virtuoso act of filmmaking from Abrahamson that is sure to impress filmgoers. And later in the film’s second act, the questions that accompany such a long captivity are asked and answered in a satisfying and powerfully moving way.
Neither Donoghue or Abrahamson ever take the easy route, and some may find that approach unsettling. Others will notice that this is what great filmmaking used to be capable of, asking grand questions and then not flinching from the tough answers.
Being a parent isn’t a magical solution to all of life’s problems, love can’t fix every ailment, and not every relation, even your closest ones, will rally round when the time comes for them to do. By facing these truths head on Room becomes all the more powerful.
Even in a crisis as horrifying as the one set up here, we can still find a sliver of hope to hold on to, and coupled with love, it might just be enough to hold on to, to salvage a broken life.
This is tough but rewarding material that speaks deeply to the Irish because, thanks to our collective history, we have along the way somehow developed a kind of tribal shorthand for knowing how to withstand what cannot be endured.
It may explain why the insights and the sheer focus of both the Irish writer and director at work here are so remarkable. Room is undeniably great filmmaking, and it stands head and shoulder above the other fare at the multiplex this month. It will rattle you, but so will life sometimes. The trick is to learn the lessons.