I’ve described Children of Men as, by some distance, the best film of last year. I’ve described V for Vendetta as a vapid apology for terrorism. Now, one of the best US blogs - the American Scene - endorses the view, expressed by Daniel Larison, that they are distinctly similar. The reviews they cite may not dislike V for Vendetta quite as much as I did but they see both films as being intellectually and spiritually empty (requires free registration). Children of Men is thought to have come off better only thanks to director Alfonse Cuaron’s consummate cinematic talent. I won’t bother rehashing my attack on V for Vendetta as it seems unnecessary but it seems important to leap to Children of Men’s defence.
A large part of my disagreement with the reviewers is that I actually think that the film’s portrayal of the government is somewhat sympathetic. The government in this film is compromised and commits some truly evil acts but, in the end, there was something heroic in their desperate but probably vain attempt to hold a dying society together. It portrays their crimes frequently and certainly does not seek to absolve them of guilt but this is only one element of their treatment. During the scenes where Theo meets his cousin, the Arts Minister, the effort to defend humanity’s greatest creations from our collapse might come across as futile to some. To me it seemed a heroic defiance of fate in the name of our higher instincts. Similarly, during the climactic fighting it is the rebels who restart the battle after it has been stopped by the child’s crying. This is a portrait of a society dying and a government doing all it can to defend the best in the society it stewards.
In this light the government’s deplorable actions come across somewhat differently. An anti-immigration stance may not make good economic sense with a rapidly declining population but if you are fighting a hopeless battle for stability is probably sensible. Sid and the other really unpleasant characters on the government side are those brutal men who do well out of brutal times requiring brutal measures. Their failure is not of being on the wrong side but of being uncaring and inhuman. The allusions to Abu Ghraib point to the same problem in Iraq. The coalition labours at the near impossible task of holding the Iraqi state together despite huge internal pressures and, in the process, succumbs to evil.
Similarly, if this film were really all about the evils of our tyrannical government the rebels would be portrayed as heroes fighting the good fight. Instead many are shown to be unrealistic, unfeeling and fractious. The morally best among them are forced out or killed by the bad. Neither the government nor the rebels have a ‘right’ answer of how to respond to the death of humanity because there is no right answer. The desperation that this creates as neither side can offer a solution turns the good intentions of many on both sides to evil.
The hero’s defining quality is, therefore, not that he is on the right side but that he avoids the moral failings present in both sides. Although his back story is that he used to be a rebel his first instinct on finding that the girl he is safeguarding is pregnant is to argue that she should be sent to the government as they can provide proper care. The claim from some of the rebels that this would result in the government removing the child from its mother is never substantiated. He is not the hero because he is on the right side, because he is particularly strong or otherwise able. He is a hero because he is caring and trustworthy. This is shown in one of the film’s more wonderful little details as dogs and cats sense that he can be trusted and take to him. In Children of Men evil doesn’t pass through political factions but through human hearts. That is why this film is so much more convincing and real than V for Vendetta. This is also a conservative understanding of humanity which, although this is a completely secular film, the religious should appreciate.
One of the charges laid against the film version is that it is rather small minded as it does not have a clear idea of what the meaning of a world without children is and the advent of a new child is largely a personal affair rather than socially important. However, I think that the importance of the lack of children is spelt out beautifully. Without children the world loses purpose. The loss of that hope for the future is what makes existence in Children of Men’s world so dismal. As such, while P. D. James’ book may have been about the loss of God this film offers a secular replacement; hope. That a new child is not expected to prove a panacea is an inspired change to the story from the original. What the new child offers is not a solution to all society’s problems but a new hope that there can be a purpose and meaning to our labours. This film is, perhaps, an important lesson in how terrible the fate of being the Last Man really is. This seems timely.
I can’t claim any special insight into Cuaron’s intentions in making Children of Men. It is possible that he meant to make a hackneyed moral opera like V for Vendetta but his cinematic instinct and source material got the better of him. If so I would be disappointed but it wouldn’t change anything. Cuaron has committed his film to the ages and it is indelibly marked with a far more noble understanding of morality than the false simplicities of V. This is a film about the qualities of real heroes. It is a film about the importance of purpose. A great film.