Following the recent and harrowing real-life cases of the Fritzel family and the Ariel Castro kidnappings, long-term false imprisonments have burned themselves into the public consciousness. One of the best things to be said about Room, an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2010 bestseller (scripted by Donoghue herself), is that instead of concerning itself with the gruesome details of suffering in such an environment, it focuses on the bravery and self-imposed routines used by the victims to survive. Room is full of such understated examples of tastefulness; nothing we can work out for ourselves is explained to us, and the focus on characters over explicit traumas was absolutely the right call. Unfortunately, it’s also a film prone to self-sabotage, which lets down one of the year’s most powerful premises.
Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay (only 8 at the time of filming) turn in star-making performances as Joy and Jack Newsom. Larson’s Joy, now 24, was kidnapped was by a man known only by the title of Old Nick, at the age of 17 and has since been living in his garden shed, with only a skylight providing contact with the outside world. Two years in, she had Jack, who has since given her the purpose that you presume has kept her alive. Donoghue and director Lenny Abrahamson let your mind fill in the blanks of the true horror of being kept captive, instead filling the film’s first act with a believable and touching, if slightly twisted (Joy still breastfeeds the five year old Jack), mother-son relationship. Tremblay is in almost every scene in the film, and is the perfect casting choice. As precocious as a child his age should be, he also does a wonderful job of mimicking the mannerisms of Larson, vital for a character who has only had one human contact their whole life. Larson, meanwhile, captures the general frustrations of a parent (she has a comedian’s sense of timing, providing some much needed laughs amidst the bleak surroundings), as well as the sheer desperation of someone in her impossible situation.
For all the merits of the sequences that take place in ‘Room’, as Jack has dubbed his tiny world, the film’s high point comes when (slight spoilers, it’s in the trailer) Joy and Jack escape Old Nick’s clutches. Even though you know they’re going to make it, it’s a heart-in-mouth sequence, and incredibly cathartic. Importantly, we never see Old Nick’s arrest or trial, only hearing about them occurring off screen. This is not his story, and he doesn’t deserve the airtime. In an age where vile criminals hog headlines at their victims’ expense, this is fantastically refreshing. Unfortunately, after the escape, Room rapidly runs out of steam, and starts to feel uncomfortably padded out. There are still some excellent individual moments – Joan Allen and William H Macy are superb as Joy’s parents, with Macy’s interactions with Jack heart-breaking, subtle, and realistic. Joy and Jack recover and adjust very slowly, giving time for excellent character work, but Room treads its narrative ground without enough urgency.
Jack provides voiceover at key moments in the film, which works not nearly as well as the rest of his performance, especially when accompanied by the misjudged score. By putting swelling piano under Jack’s commentary, it gives them a false sense of portentousness at odds with the naturalism found elsewhere in the story. The final scene really suffers from ‘this is how you feel now’ music, which leaves an unfairly bad taste in the mouth as the credits roll.
The message of hope goes some way to remedy this, as Room does genuinely earn its uplifting moments, and the victim>perpetrator narrative is a necessary antidote to real-life’s obsession with glorifying unstable and violent men. The editing needed to be a little harsher, and the musical choices threaten to sink the carefully constructed atmosphere, but Donoghue and Abrahamson dodge cliché, trust their audience’s intelligence, and lay a stage for universally stellar performances.