“In the particular is contained the universal.” Didn’t James Joyce say something to that effect?
Lenny Abrahamson's harrowing adaptation of an admired novel by Emma Donoghue has distant roots in the Josef Fritzl case. It cannot, however, be confused with a forensic study of the captor psychosis. Look to Markus Schleinzer's excellent Michael for detailed explanations as to how such a man might manage the detention of an unwilling stranger.
Abrahamson and Donoghue, perhaps wary of creating a charismatic cartoon monster, keep their antagonist in the greasy shadows. They don't allow Room to become his story.
Some time before the film begins, Joy “Ma” Newsome (Brie Larson) was captured and held as a sex slave by the lumbering, intermittently communicative Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). She now shares his tiny garden shed with Jack (Jacob Tremblay), the son to whom she subsequently gave birth.
The room has become a Platonic representation of all rooms. It is “room”, not “the room” to Ma and Jack. Similarly, “chair”, “table” and “skylight” are so expressed. In her desperate attempt to expand Jack’s world, Ma makes this tiny space a grubby universe.
The audience will see something else. Room takes as its subject a (thankfully) very rare manifestation of motherhood under pressure, but the story works as a metaphor for all such relationships. The walls have, at some stage, squeezed in on every young parent.
Yes, you can draw movie- of-the-week lessons about the heart-warming power of maternal love. The film-makers are, however, also brave enough to address the malign guilt that can attend parenthood. This is a disturbing film, but nothing is quite so upsetting as the scene that finds Ma confronted with the possibility that her need to keep Jack close may have extended his detention. Viewed from an oblique angle, love can seem like a selfish business.
A mere glance at the cast list will confirm that plenty happens outside the room. (Readers who wish to know little more plot than that should avoid the trailer.) As Joy’s mom, Joan Allen – furrowed and dignified throughout – creates the only character able to editorialise effectively. William H Macy is nuanced as Joy’s dad, even if his conflicted feelings about the kidnapping are left frustratingly unresolved at the film’s close.
For all that strong support, Room still feels like a two-hander between Larson and Tremblay. And what a partnership they make. As she demonstrated in Short Term 12, Larson's greatest gift is a capacity for connection. The scenes between the two leads find the actors bound together like binary stars. Beginning the film with hair down to his shoulders, Tremblay does a great job of conveying the stubborn resilience of childhood. He can just about believe in the room as "Room".
It is to Abrahamson's credit that it proves so hard to position Room within his consistently impressive canon. The Irish trilogy (Adam & Paul, Garage, What Richard Did) did seem to tell a loosely linked story. But Frank was something else altogether. Room seems to spin off in a third direction.
What does link the pictures is an unhurried, gently insistent audiovisual fingerprint. Cinematographer Danny Cohen, who did such magical work on This Is England and London Road, explores this forbidding world with a child's openness. Stephen Rennicks's score is at times a little too hectoring, but it remains melodic and persuasive.
There are some nagging issues with story – the key incident at the film’s centre, though exciting, seems wildly implausible. Still, Donoghue’s script does service to her source material without following slavishly.
We are left with a film that manages a degree of optimism in the most unpromising circumstances. It is a substantial achievement.