In his previous two features, Lenny Abrahamson has managed to coax sensational performances from Jack Reynor (What Richard Did) and, even beneath an enormous papier mâché head, Michael Fassbender (Frank). The director has done it again with Room (2015), an intimate, harrowing drama that features stellar performances from both Brie Larson and the young Jacob Tremblay. The two actors give wonderfully complementary turns, emphasising the give and take of strength that underlines this difficult mother-and-son bond. An understandably constrained adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s hugely successful 2010 novel – penned for the screen by the author herself – it remains emotionally devastating.
Donoghue’s novel famously adopts the voice of a five-year-old, Jack (Tremblay), deftly withholding the reality of its premise when seen through a child’s eyes. The film opens with the specifics of a fifth birthday celebration before expanding the frame to reveal the situation in which the boy and his Ma (Larson) live – ‘Room’. Jack has never experienced the world beyond their four walls, other than the regular visits from the mysterious Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) who unlocks the door with a keypad and spends the night in bed with Ma. Although unable to entirely occupy Jack’s mind, Abrahamson and DoP Danny Cohen do a tremendous job of emulating Ma’s crushing claustrophobia.
This is also in large part down to the two actors, with Tremblay exuding naivety and wonder while Larson outstrips the mixture of warmth, vulnerability and fiery anger that she portrayed in 2013’s Short Term 12, taking it an entirely different level. The conflicts occurring within her – exacerbated once she has come to the decision that the time is ripe for an escape attempt – are so incredibly nuanced that it is nothing short of staggering that she is able to convey them concurrently. While playing its narrative as a gripping thriller, the audience’s hearts are both warmed by the love of this unconventional family and wrenched by the constant knowledge of the deep scars that this experience will leave even if they were to break free. In the film’s latter stages, as Jack’s pre-determined world begins to fall away around him, Abrahamson and Cohen do get right inside his head through their visuals, conveying the mounting disorientation.
The potential for a life outside ‘Room’ raises all manner of moral and emotional questions, not least about the notion of progressing from childhood to adulthood when the context of the social and cultural world is removed entirely. This is the point at which Room is elevated from solid and interesting to exceptional, testing this necessarily close relationship and all of the warped aspects that there are to their situation. Where other cast members do appear (Joan Allen and William H. Macy as Larson’s parents, for instance) they provide fantastic support, but this is all about Larson and Tremblay – this is all about Ma and Jack. Their relationship is mortifying and utterly uplifting, and will have tears rolling down cheeks throughout cinemas. Brilliant and moving stuff; another hit for Abrahamson.
The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.