Room ★★★½

You might imagine you know where Room is headed when you start watching it. Think again. Anyone who has read the source material, Emma Donoghue’s multi-award winning novel of the same name, will understand that what seems on the outset to be a terrifying, horrific take of a story based on the monstrous real-life Josef Fritzl case is indeed anything but. Room is a surprisingly hopeful, sweet and uplifting film, despite it’s basis of pure cold terror creeping underneath following a hugely traumatic experience. Lenny Abrahamson—the Irish director known most recently for the well-praised Frank—directs with a personalised yet skewed lens as he tells, primarily, the story of Jack, a young boy who was born into enforced captivity with his mother and knows only ‘room’ as he terms it, as his world, infact the converted back yard shed-bunker his kidnapper—and father, the product of rape—has kept them in for years. Yet what could have been a psychodrama about the bond between a mother & son in these extreme surroundings blossoms into a story of youthful discovery, of a greater world, and hope for a better life.

One could argue it’s a film of two halves, given the first half takes place almost exclusively in ‘room’ as we explore the dynamic between Jack—played superbly by child actor Jacob Tremblay, robbed of a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Academy Awards—and his mother Joy. Brie Larson has already been enormously feted for her role as ‘Ma’ by several award bodies and frankly deserves Oscar recognition for an outstanding and frequently devastating performance as a woman subject to years of extreme psychological trauma, who holds onto life through her devotion & protection of a son who in other circumstances would be a constant reminder of the torment inflicted upon her by kidnapper ‘Old Nick’ (played with grimy unease by Sean Bridgers). Larson and Tremblay are the forces, the constants, of a movie which relies on the strength of it’s main performances, a film which isn’t in the business of being filled with incident or showy. Abrahamson gets down into the muck, under the soil and into the ground of the twisted psychology of abduction before opening out to explore the after-effects on traditional family life.

Crucially, and here’s undoubtedly why he too has been feted with big awards, he plays this all through the childlike prism of Jack, as does the book with he as the POV character. It’s never more telling than when, toward the end of the film, Joy & Jack revisit ‘room’ and we see how small it now appears to the boy, whereas during their captivity it’s shot much bigger, akin to a large apartment in close up, where the reality is it was effectively a tiny box. The skill in Abrahamson’s direction is how you never notice this until after the fact, you almost don’t realise these events appear through Jack’s world view, his embracing of a world beyond ‘room’. The script, equally, doesn’t shy away of placing Jack and Joy in tense or heart-wrenching situations - the moment where Jack witnesses a row between Larson and on-screen mother Joan Allen is brutal and vicious, while William H. Macy as her father admitting he can’t look at the boy for being reminded of the kidnapper is gut wrenching, real stuff. These are people reacting in a heartbreaking, human way to a complex and tragic situation, yet one tinged with promise.

You see Room isn’t a picture that dwells on horror, despite Lenny Abrahamson being unafraid to touch its edges, nor does it trade on violence or pain. It’s more interested in discovery, in hope, in childlike wonderment against the odds, and these devastated people overcoming what they were put through. Brie Larson & Jacob Tremblay make for a magnetic, loveable pair and while the script doesn’t always match their performances, and the picture may occasionally lose a head of steam in narrative or switch gears a little fast, it’s nevertheless a hauntingly beautiful piece of work unafraid to shine a light on tragic corners. Plus the strangest thing? It may well leave you with a smile.

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