By Maise De-Pulford
On the evening of Thursday 3rd December, the Bath Film Festival of 2015 opened its doors and commenced its eleven days of unmissable screenings with an electric preview of Lenny Abrahamson’s Room. It was two hours of baited breath, teary eyes and soul lifting captivation.
Sat in a sold out theatre, not a single empty seat, a whole audience was palpably moved by the revelation of this harrowing tale. Yet it was not the horror of the crime that rooted us to our chairs, nor was it the dramatic suspense – although superbly done – that made our hearts race. Despite being presented with such an abusive setting, the film transcends far and beyond its sordid beginnings. It is the relationship between mother and child, their survival and love beyond anything else, that sets this film alight and leaves you breathless in its wake.
Adapted from Emma Dononghue’s 2010 bestselling novel of the same name, Room is the story of Ma and five year old Jack. They live in an 11-by-11 foot garden shed, sealed and soundproofed from the outside world. A four-walled universe where at 9 o’clock every night, whilst Jack pretends to sleep hidden in the wardrobe, Old Nick arrives to bring supplies and creak the bed – this is all Jack has ever known.
Loosely inspired by the Fritzel case and countless other tales of abduction Room is a book adaptation that delves into the human experience of such an incomprehensible reality. For both Emma and Lenny the crime was just the premise, and what transpires in this film is not a voyeuristic spectacle, but a universal tale of family, growing up, and what it means to be a parent. In isolation from the outside world, it is the loving relationship between Ma and Jack that becomes everything and is ultimately what saves them both.
To translate such a story to screen, especially one that is originally narrated solely through the eyes of a five year old, is no easy feat. Yet, beautifully, Lenny manages to retain the innocence and suspense of the novel throughout, widening its scope to encompass the emotional experience of surrounding characters at the same time. It is true, changes have been made to the book. Grandma for instance is a much easier character than she is on the page, and home life a much easier transition. Yet whilst these differences perhaps remove some of the original challenges presented in the novel, they arguably bring their own sense of emotional closure and meaning to the film that are valid and effective in their own right. After all a film should be free to express itself outside the confines of its literary origins, and even more so if the author wrote the screenplay herself!
The performances of both main characters, Brie Larson as Ma and Jacob Tremblay as Jack, are breathtaking in their emotional complexity. The relationship that unfolds between the two of them on screen illustrates the power of love between parent and child; the desire to protect, grow, nurture and survive against all odds. In order to prepare, the two actors spent three weeks getting to know one another prior to filming, becoming inseparable friends in the process and creating a real rapport that shines through on screen. Larson trained and isolated herself for a month, pushing herself to breaking point in order to truly get under the skin of Ma. The resulting honesty of her acting brings an integrity that is rare and powerful on screen. However, it is arguably Jacob that steals the show. At only 8 years old he plays his role with an incredible and heart rending natural ability. His every scream, cry, or whisper reverberates through you, and holds you captivated for the entire film.
If you are lucky enough to have caught the film already, or are just eager to connect more with the performances, then I urge you to watch Larson’s interview for q at TIFF here. Aside from revealing what a sensitive and sensible actress she truly is, more than anything her answers capture the honesty, responsibility and gravity this film takes on to reach its audience in a way that is so often sidelined in the blockbuster machines of today.
There is something very rare and special about sitting amongst a crowd of strangers who are simultaneously transfixed by such a performance. There were moments on Thursday night when you could physically sense the whole audience with you: the held breath, the tangible tension of those attempting to stifle their sobs, and the rare public release of those who surrendered to the raw emotion on screen. There is no doubt that this film resonates to the core, no matter what your life experience. This shared vulnerability is something that is almost awkward and novel in today’s average cinema outing, but this is what great independent film can do.
With a tiny budget Abrahamson has delivered a film that is universal in its power to move. It has already swept up a fitting range of festival accolades and is set to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Hollywood giants in this years awards season. Unflinching and beautiful, Room is a cinematic treat for the heart – don’t miss it!