Niall Anderson watches Lenny Abrahamson’s hotly tipped captivity drama Room
Published eighteen months after the discovery of Josef Fritzl’s basement in Amstetten, Austria, Emma Donoghue’s captivity novel Room was always going to be widely reviewed. More surprising was the novel’s commercial success. It is, after all, written in the voice of a five-year-old boy (Jack) who has never seen the world outside the shed in which he was born, and into which his mother was kidnapped six years before. Much of the prose reads like this:
We do Bowling with Bouncy Ball and Wordy Ball, and knock down vitamin bottles that we put different heads on when I was four, like Dragon and Alien and Princess and Crocodile, I win the most. I practice my adding and subtracting and sequences and multiplying and dividing and writing down the biggest numbers there are.
The insistent upper-casing of common nouns as well as the reference to ‘the biggest numbers there are’ suggests the very precise boundaries of Jack’s world and imagination. Almost everything in this world is singular: from the wardrobe in which he sleeps (known as Wardrobe) to the room itself (known as Room) to his mother, Joy, who is known as Ma and who is therefore, in the grisly cosmogony of the novel, all mothers.
Room is a very suggestive book. It throngs with the queer obsessiveness of insomniac thinking, and many of its events can only be understood in retrospect – mimicking the slow motion of trauma. The difficulty is the narrative voice, or rather the narrative claustrophobia of being limited to a five-year-old’s perspective. If the reader doesn’t accept Jack as a convincing rendering of a child’s consciousness, there really is no other way in.
Novels of such dogged interiority usually get called unfilmable. This more or less makes it a dead cert that they will get filmed. A certain type of director just can’t resist a game with perspective. In his previous three features, and particularly What Richard Did (2012), Irish director Lenny Abrahamson has been moving towards a kind of floating subjectivity, in which his camera hovers very close to its subject only to break away, in controlled bursts, to a neutral viewpoint. Working from Emma Donoghue’s adaptation of her own novel, Abrahamson refines and perfects this technique on material that could hardly be better suited to it.
With one or two small changes of emphasis, the film sticks close to the plot of the novel. Twenty-six-year old Joy Newsom (Brie Larson) was kidnapped by a stranger when she was 19 and has spent every day since then in a specially converted shed, whose door is locked by a keycode and whose temperature and electricity is controlled by her captor. She has a son by her captor called Jack (Jacob Tremblay). The film opens on Jack’s fifth birthday and we get a swift sense of what an average day in the room is like: first boredom, then fear. The fear arrives in the shape of Joy’s kidnapper, a man known as Old Nick (the brilliant and neglected Sean Bridgers). Joy and Nick have an unspoken agreement whereby Nick gets to have sex with her as often as he wants, as long as he leaves Jack alone. Jack retreats to the wardrobe for these interludes, closing his eyes and counting till it’s over.
Strange to say, these early scenes are deft, gentle and frequently comic. For all its terrors, the room is half an idyll – as attested by the fact that Joy can’t decide quite how much to tell her son about the outside world.
But the outside world is coming for them. One night, Nick mentions that he’s been laid off work for the last six months and that he may lose the house. The novel is able to follow Joy’s thought process more closely than the film. In the book, she clearly understands that Nick will kill them both before he loses the house; in the film all you get is a fleeting look of panic across Joy’s face as she realises that it’s now or never.
Brie Larson is properly extraordinary here. Inasmuch as the novel is limited by what a five year old is able to say; the film is limited by what an adult can plausibly say to a five year old. Larson’s face and body have to capture everything that is literally unspeakable about the situation. She succeeds to an extraordinary and moving degree.
Donoghue’s book is at least partly a thesis novel: the more obviously eventful second half dramatizes the ideas raised in the first, leading to a resolution on the final page. The film is usefully more fleet of foot, but with the inadvertent effect of departicularising the story. At certain points it feels like watching an upscale Lifetime True Movie – with frowning grandparents, considerate doctors, determined cops, and a mom in trouble at the centre of it all.
This is disappointing but maybe inevitable. Donoghue’s book is both animated and frustrated by the question of how to treat Jack – as a representative five-year-old consciousness, or as a singular and unrepeatable human being. In the end Donoghue nudges the scales to where she wants them to fall, but without convincingly solving the puzzle she’s set herself.
Quite aside from Room’s parallels with the Fritzl case, the novel resonated because it speaks to a very particular modern anxiety: the sense of being constantly watched but not necessarily seen. There have been a slew of films in the last twenty years about this subject, ranging from Lynch’s Lost Highway to Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life, and even including something like Spielberg’s Minority Report. In such company, Room feels restrained and even a little dry, but the craft behind such restraint gives it a strange and unbudgeable power.
Room is on general release from Friday 15 January.