According to films and novels, nobody is more fascinating than an evil psychopath. Whether it’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld sneering at James Bond or Hannibal Lecter flirting with Clarice Starling, fictional maniacs tend to reinforce the myth that being insanely sadistic somehow makes you a charismatic genius. “Room” begs to differ. One of the many great things about Lenny Abrahamson’s acute new drama is its quiet insistence that kidnapping and imprisoning someone doesn’t make you interesting. What makes you interesting is having the resources to survive such an ordeal.
Adapted from Emma Donoghue’s bestseller (and deftly scripted by the author), the multi-Oscar nominated film revolves around Joy (Brie Larson), a 24-year-old woman who is snatched off the streets of an Ohio suburb and kept as a sex slave in an 11-foot-by-11-foot shed. During her incarceration she is impregnated, and she now shares her tiny living space with her precious five-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay). But while the scenario, inspired by the Fritzl case, sounds almost unbearably grim, “Room” is strangely warm and optimistic. It focuses on the love and strength of Joy and Jack, rather than the depravity of their captor. Before I saw it, I was steeling myself for two hours of stomach-turning torture porn. Floating out of the cinema afterwards, I felt as if I’d seen that rare thing: a practically flawless film.
Its first masterstroke is that it doesn’t begin with any speeches explaining the situation. There are no flashbacks to the abduction or exterior shots of the shed. Abrahamson and Donoghue just drop us into Joy and Jack’s bizarre reality and let us piece the clues together. We see that they’re in a drab, cork-lined cell. There’s barely enough space for some furniture and a bath, but although Jack has never been beyond its walls, Joy has raised him to believe that he isn’t missing out on anything. Their meagre surroundings, she has taught him, are the whole world. The sky he can glimpse through the skylight is outer space, and the people he can see on television are magic. Jack knows that his mother is visited every night by a man she calls “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers), but he doesn’t know that he is their jailer, or his father. As for Joy, she is no longer horrified by her straitened existence. It’s just a grind. She doesn’t even see Old Nick as a Satanic monster any more. He’s an anorak-wearing bore who grumbles about the price of groceries.
Both lead actors are phenomenal. Tremblay is as natural and effervescent as any child, despite Jack’s grotesque living conditions and the peculiar dialect he has developed. Larson, who has been Oscar-nominated for her performance, understands that Joy is putting on a performance, too. So as not to worry her son, she keeps her eyes bright and her tone airy, but it’s apparent how weary, tense and distracted she really is. In short, she’s a parent.
Considering that the posters and the trailers give it away, it doesn’t seem too spoilery to say that Joy and Jack escape before the halfway point. But while their nerve-racking bid for freedom would be the climax of most prison thrillers, the film’s subsequent scenes are just as compelling. For Jack, being in the wider world is about learning how bright and busy it is – and struggling with the brand new task of climbing stairs. For Joy, being back in her childhood home is about realising that it has its own pressures, aggressors and hard decisions. However relieved she is to be reunited with her mother (a beautifully understated Joan Allen), that doesn’t stop old resentments seeping into their relationship. Remarkably, “Room” makes it seem reasonable for both Joy and Jack to wish, at times, that they were back in captivity, where they had nothing to think about except each other.
But, again, it isn’t a depressing film. As nuanced and complex as “Room” is, it’s ultimately an unsentimental, heart-swelling ode to perseverance, maternal devotion and the kindness of strangers. Two supporting characters are particularly touching. One is a patient, professional policewoman (Amanda Brugel), who is more medal-worthy than pretty much any other cop in cinema history. The other is Joy’s plaid-shirted stepfather (Tom McCamus), whose unshowy decency brings a lump to the throat. If there were more men like him in fiction, and fewer men like Blofeld and Hannibal Lecter, then maybe we’d all be happier for it.
Room is in British cinemas from January 15th