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'Room' Seeks Uncomfortable Answers To Difficult Questions

23 January 2016 | 10:19 am | Anthony Carew

Abrahamson does the hard, honest work of studying human psychology.

ROOM

In the opening act of Room, the entire world is one garden shed; a tiny space in which a young woman (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son (Jacob Tremblay) have been forced to carve out their entire existence. The days begin and end with the kid saying good morning and good night to every lamp, toilet, pot-plant, rug, wardrobe, and item of cutlery. In between, there’s a regimented daily routine of stretching, exercises, dental hygiene, and good old-fashioned bout of screaming at the top of their lungs, hoping the aliens on the other side of their solitary skylight will hear.

Except, their screams go unheard, by aliens or not. The pair have been locked up by a Fritzl-esque captor (Sean Bridges) — the mother’s abductor, and child’s father — a not-so-jolly fellow they call Old Nick. To Tremblay, he’s a mysterious figure, a disembodied voice, a ghostly, Godly bringer of groceries. At night, he cowers in the wardrobe; warned of Old Nick’s arrival by the ominous beeps of him entering a security passcode, quietly counting every squeak that comes from the bed beside.

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Life inside this solitary room literalises the prison of an abusive relationship. This abductor, captor, and rapist is also a kind of clichéd patriarch; Bridges reminding Larson, in arguments that have the tenor of an old-married couple, of who pays the bills and puts food on the table. As coping mechanism, Larson has fashioned her own mythology, turning Room into its own world, with its own logic; hoping to insulate her son from the nightmare that she’s living, any life beyond these walls as distant as a far-off planet.

Emma Donoghue’s source text, which she herself adapted for screen, gives rise to the rich lingua of Room, telling the story from the perspective of its 5-year-old narrator. Director Lenny Abrahamson (the Irishman who made the austere teen-death drama What Richard Did and faux-zany outsider-art barney Frank), tries to convey both the oppression and the totality of his single-room existence, but what his camera really captures is something more specific. Not just the bond between parent and child, but how a parent can serve as a child’s everything, can shape the way they see the world. And, in turn, how a child can draw magnetically to told stories over hard facts, can be a combustible mixture of defiance, acceptance, rage, love, enthusiasm; sometimes all at once.

"It’s a small, simple story that camouflages dark depths."

This opening act is so masterfully staged and sharply written, that it could be either blessing or curse for What Happens Next; and for Abrahamson’s difficult task in making Room feel as vital when it transitions to the world outside. Gladly, its beginning turns out to feel like real grounding; its portrait of captive living, shaped worldviews, and repressed psychological trauma reverberating into its second and third acts. There, it explores what happens when these same two cloistered characters are tossed — and soon, lost — in the world beyond room.

Although the Academy ignored its towering lead turn from 8-year-old Tremblay, one of the great child actor performances ever seen on screen, Room has become an Oscar season staple. Which, to a certain kind of filmgoer, will suggest that it must be a film of sentimentality or self-appointed grandeur, that its portrait of loving mothers and angry children will surely submit to emotional button-pushing. But, time and again, Abrahamson shies away from that; does the hard, honest work of studying human psychology, and seeking uncomfortable answers to difficult questions. It’s a small, simple story that camouflages dark depths; Room full of emotional gravity, real humanity, and earnt profundity.

THE DANISH GIRL

Blah. That’s the general feeling evoked by The Danish Girl, but the opposite of what it promises, hopes for, strives for. It’s an Oscarbait biopic of Danish artist Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery in the early 20th-century. Fresh off his awards-sweeping Theory Of Everything turn, Eddie Redmayne submits another transformative lead performance; his work physical, profound, technically brilliant; his wet eyes aquiver with a sea of emotion.

2015’s everywherewoman, Alicia Vikander, has also earnt an Oscar, but her role has far less to recommend it. It’s, instead, its own Oscar staple: the supportive wife who watches on as the Daring Man at the narrative centre breaks new barriers; this in spite of the fact that Gerda Wegener, whom Vikander is playing, was herself a queer artist, and did anything but stand around with quivering lip. Vikander’s role, and the rewriting of her tale, suggests the formula at play: The Danish Girl a work of biopic blandeur being passed off as of-the-zeitgeist art.

It’s no surprise, really, given that director Tom Hooper has a long history of tasteful TV mini-series and toffee period-pieces. There’s nothing wrong with the way The Danish Girl is photographed: its soft light, diaphanous drapes, and spartan furnishings influenced by Hammershøi paintings; its intermittent use of radically decentred compositions showing another attempt, after the surprisingly good Les Misérables, to break away from his telemovie-ish past.

But, ultimately, Hooper wants to deliver a picture free from rough edges, from knotty facts, from real friction. The Danish Girl turns past radicalism into present convention. It’s tasteful, picturesque, inoffensive; a genteel, soft-touch portrait of a trans story that, with its man-tries-on-a-stocking moment of genesis, turns a trailblazing journey of identity, surgery, and defiance into a game of frocked-up dress-ups.

LOOKING FOR GRACE

Looking For Grace functions as essential companion-piece to Sue Brooks debut 1997 film Road To Nhill. Again, it’s a quasi road-movie of bone-dry Australian humour, of delightful-old-codger characters both laughed with and at, and circuitous storytelling; a tale of intersecting storylines that betrays a filmmaker playing with fate.

Here, breakout-starlet-to-be Odessa Young plays a teenage runaway, who’s stolen cash from her parents and is travelling, by bus, on a road to nowhere; heading, essentially, into the ever-cinematic nothingness of the outback. Eventually, on her case follow: Radha Mitchell, her aerobic-wear-clad house-mum; Richard Roxburgh, her diffident dad; and Terry Norris, the semi-retired PI who has her ‘case’ thrown his way.

Brooks passes perspectives around, telling the drama from different points of view; but she does so with an irregularity. The film’s opening act is wholly devoted to Young, but what seems like it’ll be a work of regimented chapters becomes something more ad-hoc, with the differing perspectives finally converging. As the story moves about, the way information is revealed to an audience suggests no real rhyme or reason, nor does it create a sense of genuine forward momentum. The approach moves from art-movie minimalism to quirky comedy to, at the end, ill-advised tragedy; the ultimate result a film that feels — in structure, tone, and success — wholly uneven.