Based on the novel by PD James, "Children of Men" is set an unsettling twenty years from today. Humanity is counting the days until the end. There have been no children in eighteen years, due to an unexplained and universal case of infertility, and how do people behave without children to nurture, shelter, and love?
The answer, according to this movie, is terrifying.
The streets of Britain are choked in rubble and corpses. Bombings are commonplace, and weary, disillusioned Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is taken by surprise but not horror when a coffeehouse explodes behind him after he gets his morning coffee. There are no children to protect, only borders, and Britain does this ruthlessly. Immigrants are herded in cages, guarded by stony-faced policemen, to be locked in refugee concentration camps. Despite this merciless anti-immigration policy ("Suspicious? Report immediately!" ads and people pleading behind bars in a dozen languages) illegal immigrants are flocking to Britain. When this charred, smoking, and grimly unwelcoming landscape is considered a haven, one wonders how badly off the rest of the world must be. The only answer we receive cannot be trusted: "The world has collapsed. Only Britain soldiers on," as blared by the omnipresent state-sponsored commercials. The verb is a peculiarly well-chosen one, as Britain has effectively become a police state, run entirely by force and weaponry. What else can the government use to control people? Hopes for a brighter future? As Theo puts it, when the human race will have died out in less than a hundred years, there is effectively no future to hope for, bright or otherwise. "I can't really remember when I last had any hope," he says bitterly, "and I certainly can't remember when anyone else did either. Because really, since women stopped being able to have babies, what's left to hope for?"
The question is answered when his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), who left him when their child was killed by influenza, tries to re-awaken his old sense of political activism. She is a freedom fighter in a subversive group called the "Fishes", and is soon shown to stand out for actually caring about the welfare of immigrants and humanity in general. (In a chilling statement on the nature of power and corruption, not all of the Fishes are fighting for such noble reasons.) Julian introduces Theo to Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), an illegal immigrant, is eight months pregnant with the first child in eighteen years. She wants to be taken to the Human Project, supposedly a group of top scientists working on re-populating the world, despite the possibility that it could be a product of propaganda.
This feeble, dismal "hope" is one for which more than one good person dies. "Children of Men" is unrelenting to the point of brutality. There are scenes of paralyzing horror--an ambush of a car by shrieking, armed attackers, shot almost entirely from the view of the trapped passengers, is especially haunting. The dead policemen a Freedom Fighter leaves behind because shooting is more efficient than talking is not an easy image to forget. There are nightmarish images of people screaming for mercy, of broken glass and bullets and fire, of the actions of soldiers and rebels who, political differences aside, are more alike than they'd like to admit in their willingness to sacrifice humanity for power.
There are also scenes of quiet, determined beauty. The first, almost religious moment when Theo (and the audience) sees Kee take off her shirt and reveal herself to be the first pregnant woman in eighteen years. Kee singing on a long-abandoned swing, our view of her framed by the shards of a broken schoolroom window. Kee and Theo picking their way through soldiers stunned into silence at the unprecedented, miraculous sight of a newborn baby. The sound of a baby crying in a world that has known only the sounds of explosions and gunfire and shouting. Theo teaching Kee how to comfort the baby and making her promise to "keep her with you", before the ambivalent conclusion that might mean salvation--or might not.
Hope-Ashitey plays Kee with a beautiful combination of strength and spirit, who wears her miracle with grace and even humor. She slyly tells Theo, "There's no father. I'm a virgin!" before laughing, "Nah! It'd be great, though, wouldn't it?" During one of the movie's gripping chase scenes, while bullets tear through the walls around them and the building literally crumbles under the hail of gunfire, Theo ludicrously asks her how the baby is. Her reply is, "Annoyed!" And to those who would politicize and exploit her baby before it is even born, she is staunch in insisting, "My baby will not be a flag!"
Owen keeps up with her as he becomes a man who finally realizes that humanity may have a fighting chance--and that he is willing to fight for it with all the humanity left in him. There are Christian elements to "Children of Men" that reach beyond the prophecies of doom shilled on the streets, and nowhere as stirringly as in Theo's impassioned Joseph to Kee's determined Mary.
Miriam (Pam Ferris), Kee's fiercely protective midwife, is another memorable character. She remembers just when babies stopped being born and her art became obsolete. In one of the saddest lines in the movies, she comments, "As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd, what happens in a world without children's voices." Odd is one way to describe a world where buildings in the so-called "civilized" world are crumbling into pieces, police shoot first and ask questions afterwards, and the most popular consumer product is a suicide drug.
Another stand-out character is the easy-going Jasper, a a Bohemian ex-political cartoonist who likes growing pot and listening to the Beetles. He plays a father figure of sorts to Theo, and this, added to his tender care of his mentally ill wife (who was tortured for using her freedom of speech, and is now only an empty shell of the brilliant woman she must once have been), is a much-needed affirmation of love and hope.
This movie is gripping and heartbreaking and so dramatically different from the novel that there is little point in enumerating the differences. "Children of Men" stands alone and independently as a work of great magnitude and poignancy.