VOD film review: Room
Ivan Radford | On 09, May 2016
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay
Watch Room online in the UK: Netflix UK / Amazon Prime / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
“When I was small, I only knew small things. But now I’m five, I know everything.” That’s Jack (Tremblay), a young boy who has spent his whole life locked up in a shed with his mum (Brie Larson). It’s a horrifying subject for a film, but director Lenny Abrahamson manages the impossible: he takes that horror and turns into something uplifting.
When the movie begins, all we see is the inside of their cell, which both Jack and his mum refer to as “Room”. That consistent use of proper nouns is subtle, but effective: every inch of Room is populated by objects that are singular and significant. It’s not “a” toilet or “the” toilet, just Toilet. Just Plant. Just Meltedy Spoon. They are all one-of-a-kind, because they are the only things that Jack knows.
Writer Emma Donoghue, who adapts her own book for the screen, frames the entire story through that prism of Jack’s experience. His voice talks, almost non-stop, over the top of the shocking images, telling us about the absolutes that he believes to be true. And all the while, those nouns remain concrete, fixed. Bed. Skylight. Mouse.
If Donoghue’s skill as a writer is to get us to share Jack’s outlook, Abrahamson’s skill as a director is to be able to switch between Jack’s perspective and that of his mum. Known only as “Ma”, Brie Larson is gob-smackingly good, patiently home-schooling her son, while feeding him the fairytales he needs to avoid the harsh reality – that she was kidnapped and trapped in this hut and has been routinely subject to further abuse ever since.
One day, though, something snaps, and she begins to teach Jack the truth. Mouse, you see, has disappeared. Where is he? Outside. But where is outside, if it’s not in Room? The walls go on forever, surely? “Everything has two sides,” she explains. “What about octagons?” comes the reply.
Tremblay is just as remarkable as the film’s co-lead, brimming over with the excitement of encountering new things. It’s his sincere enthusiasm that gives Room its disarmingly upbeat tone – because no matter what’s happened to Jack, deep down, he sounds and behaves like any other five year old. Indeed, the film’s most upsetting moment comes when we fear that this might not be the case, that his unusually cruel upbringing has irreversibly changed him – for a few minutes, Brie Larson blinks back tears, trying to explain to her young ward that their home is, in fact, a room, not Room.
Larson’s brave face is almost unflappable, as she jokes, laughs and smiles with equal courage and conviction – it’s surprising just how amusing Room is, a testament to the actors’ chemistry. DoP Danny Cohen captures their shared strength with beautiful intimacy – and awkward proximity. The film’s principle set is designed so that floors and walls can be removed, allowing the camera to get up close and adding to the dusty claustrophobia.
As those conceptual walls widen, and our couple’s horizons begin to expand, we share in Jack’s thrill of learning about the unknown. What elevates Room to something truly special, though, is that the story doesn’t end there: Abrahamson, whose last film, Frank, managed to turn a tale of suicidal musicians and depression into an inspiring ode to creativity, doesn’t shy away from examining the consequences of what has happened to the pair, from the time we spend with Ma’s concerned family on the outside of Room to the frustrating moments where police officers fail to grasp what’s going on behind the neighbourhood’s normal, suburban surface. You’ll cry out of terror, you’ll cry out of tragedy, you’ll cry out of relief, and not once will it feel forced.
The delicate balance of the two is at its best in a nail-biting sequence involving a track halfway through, as fear and bravery come head to head with innocence and fascination. Yes, this is a horror story, torn from real news headlines, but in these astonishingly talented hands, it’s one stuffed full of hope and affection. The result is a heartbreaking tribute to the heartwarming power of parental love – and a hugely moving, profound poem of childlike wonder.
“There’s so much of place in the world,” says Jack, his eyes open wide. He’s right. There is. After watching Room, you’ll appreciate every inch of it.
Room is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. It is also available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.