SPOILER WARNING: The film Room is a story of two distinct halves, and the pre-release trailers have shown very little from the second half. The film is more enjoyable the less you know about the second half, but it’s also difficult to review the film without addressing the contrast between its two halves. Therefore, I will review the first half first, then give a clear warning of where you should stop if you don’t want any spoilers before seeing the film. I will then discuss the second half, which contains several spoilers.
Definitely not to be confused with Tommy Wiseau’s similarly titled magnum opus The Room, this Irish-Canadian picture by Frank director Lenny Abrahamson has generated considerable awards buzz and critical acclaim since it made the rounds on the festival circuit last autumn. The film is an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel, by no means an easy book to translate to the screen, which was itself inspired by the notorious Josef Fritzl case. Room is fictional but clearly inspired by the ordeal of Elisabeth Fritzl, held captive by her father for over two decades. Donoghue took particular interest in her youngest son Felix, who was five when they escaped in 2008.
I’ve contemplated before whether or not a film could ever be made about the actual Fritzl family, and I doubt it could ever be compressed into a feature running time without making either too many disrespectful omissions, reducing screentime of crucial people or censoring too many of the disturbing details. The story almost has too many shocking elements to believe; kidnapping, rape, incest, fabricated religious cults and children born in captivity who wouldn’t see freedom until adulthood. It’s impossible to convey the full extent of Fritzl’s cruelty to his own family.
The kidnapping and nightly rape of Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) in Room is horrific to imagine, and the film wisely leaves it to our imaginations without broaching Fritzlesque incest. Much like the original novel, we only see and hear what her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) does, but unlike this five-year-old prisoner, the adult audience knows exactly what her ordeal involves. Joy tries to keep her son sane and healthy with a good diet, daily exercise, education and what hygiene she can manage. She still breastfeeds him, but apart from that he has as normal a life as she can manage.
An intriguing concept explored in the film is Jack’s childlike perception of the world. A peculiar twist on “Schrodinger’s Cat” is depicted through Jack’s narration; he believes “Room” to be an entire world where only he, his mother and the mysterious “Old Nick” (Sean Bridger), who visits her nightly, actually exist. “TV” is a separate world which can be seen only from afar (hence why the people are smaller) and then beyond that there’s outer space. His only view of the outside world comes from a skylight, so he knows of the sky but knows nothing about the world beyond his walls. Eventually, Joy has to teach Jack that this is a lie and that there is indeed a great wide world outside, and the resulting conversations are endearing, humorous and philosophically intriguing, not to mention fantastically acted by the leads.
The night before I saw the film, Brie Larson won her first Golden Globe for her performance and she has netted a further eighteen awards and counting, even becoming the clear favourite for a Best Actress Oscar. I’ve always enjoyed Larson’s work, though she’s better known for supporting roles in comedies (including 21 Jump Street, Scott Pilgrim VS The World and most recently Trainwreck) or larger roles in little-known indie films like Short Term 12 and The Gambler. Room is the mainstream breakthrough she deserves, and she’s certainly my favourite for the Oscar.
Jack is played by 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay, and it’s no hyperbole to call his performance one of the all-time best by a child actor. Tremblay’s dialogue, although the words are simple, is dripping with subtext and complexity and he never once comes across as precocious or unrealistic. We’ve seen some great child actors before like Dakota Fanning, Fred Savage and Freddie Highmore who seem a bit too trained to pass as real kids. Jacob’s work in this film was transcendentally pure and I sincerely believe he should have been an Oscar nominee despite his young age.
Abrahamson had a great challenge with the first half of Room, as he can’t depict anything outside of a tiny shed. He shoots from every possible angle and the script is filled with riveting dialogue, and even the mundane details of how they live their lives invest you. A lesser film would cram in lots of flashbacks and musical montages to keep the rabble from losing interest, but Abrahamson and Donoghue (who adapted her own book to a loyal screenplay) use the deliberate pace and restricted space to the film’s advantage. And once again, Larson and Tremblay knock it out of the park with their performances.
WARNING: FROM THIS POINT ON THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SIGNIFICANT PLOT SPOILERS.
The trailers for Room unfortunately give away a big part of the mid-way twist; Joy wraps Jack in a rug, pretends he has died and tricks her kidnapper into taking his body outside. What the trailers don’t reveal is that once Jack escapes, he is nearly retrieved by the kidnapper “Old Nick” but is stopped by a concerned dog-walker, saved by the police and eventually (though he is terrified and confused) manages to lead the police to Joy and she is also rescued. They spend the second half of the film living at Joy’s mother’s house and readjusting to society.
The film could easily have dropped the ball in this less claustrophobic second half, but if anything it becomes even better. Unlike in the first half, where Joy kept a level head under difficult circumstances and Jack had difficulty grasping unfamiliar concepts, in the second half Jack is the one embracing his new surroundings while Joy struggles with adjusting to a world which had given her up for dead. We see occasional glimpses of the legal battle against her kidnapper, whose real name is never revealed, but the film wisely stays with Jack and away from the predictable courtroom proceedings.
Joy’s parents, whose marriage fell apart after her disappearance, are played by William H. Macy and Joan Allen, both stellar actors who use their limited screentime to display incredible emotional complexity. They initially cooperate with each other and are simply delighted to have Joy back in their lives, but the presence of an unexpected grandson fathered by their daughter’s rapist tears them apart once again.
Jack’s grandfather can’t even look at him, and Macy’s eyes tell us all. It was at this time that I realised something remarkable: the word “rape” is never said in the movie! I’ve said it several times just in this review but the film stays in Jack’s head and the horrific concept is talked around rather than talked about, because we don’t need big dramatic monologues about rape to understand that it’s the psychological damage which takes more toll than the physical.
Tom McCamus also stands out in a supporting role, playing Joy’s mother’s new partner Leo. He bonds with Jack more successfully than anyone and he becomes the father figure Jack has never had. There is no major drama involving Leo; he’s simply a decent human being doing what a decent human being would do, and his significance in the story really sneaks up on you.
I can’t recommend Room enough. It’s a singular triumph of filmmaking, acting and writing which flows elegantly and profoundly. It respects its audience’s emotional maturity and avoids gratuitous and melodramatic conflict. It keeps the focus where it belongs, on the bond between mother and child against terrible odds, and that’s something we can all relate to. Don’t miss this masterpiece.