I read Emma Donahue’s Room when I flew to Korea for the first time. It was pre-kindle days, I was nervous and looking for something to take my mind off my impending journey into the unknown, so I bought the paperback at the airport and read almost all of it on the 12 hour journey.
I hated it. I found the voice of the young boy Jack inauthentic and cloying, and there was a sense of claustrophobia that may certainly have been intentioned, and yet was not what I wanted to feel on my first major flight, having left my friends and family behind me.
That was over five years ago, and so when I heard a film of the novel was being made, I was interested, partly because I knew Lenny Abrahamson was involved – I had seen his film Frank, and loved it – and partly because I was curious as to how they would manage to pull it off. For one thing, the whole story comes from the viewpoint of Jack who is a five-year-old boy. Now, I don’t wish to be unkind. I think it’s probably a good thing when child-actors are wooden as hell, it likely means they are ordinary, well-adjusted and completely, obliviously unselfconscious which is how children should be, for as long as they can.
But when you’re making a film which so relies upon the performance of a child, that seems incredibly risky, especially when there is such a fine line between naturalness and precociousness.
The film handles this delicate balance in several ways. While we do hear only Jack’s thoughts, the camera lingers long and often on the face of Brie Larson who plays Ma, Jack’s mother and the victim of a kidnap seven years prior. And Ma looks like someone who has been kept in a garage for seven years. Her face is ashy, she has a cluster of spots on her temple, her lank hair hangs, not quite as long as Jack’s, her shoulders hunch like a tired school-kid. I wouldn’t expect any less authenticity from Abrahamson, but it’s the unshowiness of how run-down Ma looks that is impressive. It’s not the Oscars-courting facial prosthetics of Charlize Theron or Nicole Kidman. It’s just pure, inside-out, quiet depression and it seeps out of her. We can feel Ma’s heaviness, her loneliness, her boredom. Brie Larson is mutedly, brilliantly effective.
I needn’t have worried about Jack either. Jacob Tremblay is a raw talent with a beautifully articulate face and Abrahamson coaxes a fine performance out of him, often filming Jack’s face in profile, so that we are left looking at him, looking at things beyond the frame, his expression conveyed only by the slow movement of his long eyelashes.
The film also handles with the lightest of touches everything that such a dreadful situation implies; rape, loved ones’ inability to cope, family estrangement. Key events never feel like set-pieces and never turn soapy, even when there is high potential for it to all go a bit Eastenders. William H Macy’s brief scenes were amongst my most personally heart-wrenching, another example of a fine actor who has a face capable of demonstrating chasms of emotion.
My husband was so unusually affected by the film that he was left badly injured when he tried to give our house-bound cat a taste of the world beyond our front door, and the horrified cat panicked and scratched the bejasus out of him.
I’ve since seen all the Oscars furore, and I know that Brie Larson won the Oscar for Best Actress. I don’t follow the Oscars, they always seem to give awards to the films that haven’t even been released yet in Korea so I usually haven’t seen them, and the pool they fish in is so narrow to begin with. It all seems a bit naff these days, I know that there was no one ‘Best Picture’ of last year but several; same as I can’t tie myself down to one actor giving the definitive best performance. However, Brie Larson deserved recognition for her work in Room, there can be no question of that. And it’s confirmed for me that Lenny Abrahamson is one of the very best directors working today and I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do next.