Room ★★★★★

Isa's challenge, no. 2: a movie featuring an Oscar-winning performance by a lead actress.

[NOTE: This review contains spoilers not only for Room but also Lenny Abrahamson's previous film Garage. Do what you will with this information.]

2016 can throw all the action heroes and superhumans it wants at me, but there's no question my true hero of the year will be the police officer who works out, from Jack's necessarily garbled description, where Joy is being held prisoner. What a woman!

Room is a movie about a strange process that happens before we're old enough to understand the scale of what we're doing. It's about constructing the world for the first time, understanding where you fit in it and how you interpret both the things you can see and the things you can't understand. It focuses, as you probably know by now, on Joy and Jack, the former a woman kidnapped and held captive for seven years by a rapist, the second the child she had by her jailer. Apart from one tiny skylight, Jack's first glimpse of the outside world comes when Joy involves him in a plan to escape, and his understanding of what he sees out there is entirely based on the television he's watched while held prisoner.

The brilliance of Emma Donoghue's source novel - and the script, which the author adapted herself in an impressive feat of self-surgery - is that it never exits Jack's point of view, while also creating space for the reader's own knowledge of the world to fill in the things he can't understand yet. We know why men like Nick - played by Sean Bridgers in an excellent performance that highlights the character's viciousness and weakness at the same time - abduct girls like Joy. We know how a five-year-old child born to a woman who's seen no man other than her rapist for seven years was conceived, and why this means his grandfather (William H Macy, in an effective cameo) can't look him in the eye. We also know why Jack doesn't understand these things, so we don't hear an explanation of these things. But Abrahamson and Donoghue manage to mesh Jack's voiceover with imagery and performances to fill all these things in.

When Jack is a prisoner in Room, the stark nickname he gives the shed Nick holds them in, it's shot in widescreen, wide-angled plushness. You forget how small it is because it's not small to Jack; it's the only space he's ever seen, and that's more than enough to live in. Towards the end, he asks to go back, and he can barely recognise his former home. Not just because the police have torn the furniture out for evidence, but because the door is open. The old riddle about when a door is not a door has no meaning to Jack: the whole function of Room's door, in his experience, has been to remain firmly shut.

Abrahamson experiments the most with Jack's perspective in the aforementioned scene where he's picked up by police. His camera burrows in tight on Jack's face and intercuts it with the detail Jack finds interesting, which isn't the visual information we'd see in a normal film: the streetlights reflected in the windows, the badge on the policewoman's hat, all the things he hasn't seen before. It's a brief moment in between the spurious normality of Room and the actual normality of life on the outside, but it establishes simply and effectively how very different Jack's view of the outside world must be.

I can imagine a version of Room which would be this formally strange all the way through, and would eschew some of the more Hollywood moments like the slow-motion shot of Joy running from her prison, or the closing crane shot. I also suspect that parallel film would be under pressure to earn its serious avant-garde bona fides by showing Nick's assaults on Joy more graphically, but Abrahamson shows true maturity by inferring it. The bruises on her neck, the horrible detail of Jack in his cupboard counting the bedspring squeaks until Nick is finished with Joy, are more chilling and evocative than another smugly unpleasant, Cannes-award-begging rape scene.

Room is, after a fashion, a mainstream film, and like Steve McQueen's similar risky jump into Hollywood with Twelve Years a Slave it has chosen its mainstream elements carefully as a guard against the sheer unpalatability of the subject matter. Out of Abrahamson's previous films, the one it most resembles is Garage, a fine rural tragedy that I also guiltily resented. Garage sets up a situation which seems to have no escape other than suicide, and follows it through to exactly that ending. It's beautifully made, and shows Abrahamson's gift with actors as well as Room does. But on leaving, I couldn't understand the point of making something so relentlessly hopeless.

The basic story of Room makes Garage look like a Garry Marshall rom-com, but I was never under any doubt as to what Abrahamson wanted me to take away from it. It is a rallying call for humanity in an age of sensationalism, whether it's in the terse, tense scenes of Joy and Jack in captivity or in the no less emotional and fraught scenes of them making their way in the wider world. Donoghue is good at writing scenes, like Jack's grandfather's rejection of him, where a character behaves badly in a way we can understand and sympathise with. The culmination of this is Joy's TV interview, during which she comes across as stand-offish, prickly and unsympathetic in a way that completely fits with the resourceful, caring, emotional human being we've come to love.

Larson's Oscar for this role was nothing less than completely earned, hitting all the big emotional beats without ever seeming like an actress turning in show pieces. The major question is why Jacob Tremblay wasn't even nominated - I know, Leo ate some raw meat, take that Brando - for his equally brilliant performance as the centre of the film's universe. There's a moment where he has to react to seeing the sky for the first time, something I'm not sure I can even put into words, but on seeing Tremblay's face I have no doubt that's what it looks like. Room takes a situation which sounds completely inaccessible in its horror and freakishness and turns you back out into the daylight thinking it might be the story of all of us. What an achievement that is, and how wonderful that it was recognised.

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