Real but defying belief
The film Room, based on the book by Irish author Emma Donoghue has been widely acclaimed on foot of its recent release receiving four Oscar and three Golden Globe nominations. It has been described as ‘a testimony to love and courage’ in the face of the dreadful reality of sex slavery. It was directed by Lenny Abrahamson and the producer is Ed Guiney (see photo), the nephew of Irish Jesuit John Guiney. His cousin John K Guiney is also a Jesuit. Below is an insightful review of the film from the Australian Catholic Film office headed up by Richard Leonard SJ.
ROOM. Director: Lenny Abrahamson . Writer: Emma Donoghue Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers, Joan Allen, William H Macy, Tom McCamus.
Room is a compelling drama for several reasons. It is memorable for its film making, the acting of its major characters, its testimony to love and courage in the face of harsh reality, and for the powerful emotion it evokes. The film has been nominated for four Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards. But just as importantly Room is worth watching because the story that unravels on screen and defies belief is not a fantasy but real.
Written for the screen by Emma Donoghue and based on her novel, Room is about a 24-year-old woman called Joy (Brie Larson), who is imprisoned in a room cut off from the rest of the world for seven years, during which time she gives birth to a son called Jack (Jacob Tremblay).
Against a confused and murky background we are introduced to Joy (‘Ma’) and Jack through voice-overs, mysterious whispers and narratives that mix common-place instructions (‘Sssh – go back to sleep’) with flights of fancy (‘Good morning rug, plant, lamp, sink, TV, toilet’) and practical intelligence (‘If you don’t mind it doesn’t matter’).
Called ‘Room’, the world that Jack is born into is grubby and cramped, with natural light coming from a skylight in the ceiling through which only the transition from day to night and the passing of the seasons can be observed. ‘Once upon a time before I came into Room’, is the only creation story that Jack knows or can imagine. But this is about to change.
Jack will soon be five, and Ma plans to bake him a birthday cake to celebrate this milestone, with ingredients brought to Room by the mysterious ‘Old Nick’, who supplies all their physical needs. He often sleeps with Ma, during which time Jack is banished to the wardrobe.
As little as we know about Joy and Jack and the facts of their incarceration, we know that Jack is a happy, creative, highly imaginative boy because of the courage and instinctive wisdom of his mother whose sole aim is to protect him physically and emotionally at all costs. Through the power of this imperative, Joy devises a plan that seems to have no chance of succeeding – yet does. Thus half way through the film the story seems to be over. But this isn’t the case at all.
The world outside Room is an alien place for both Jack and his mother. Joy who was seventeen when she was abducted comes back to parents whose own lives have changed radically. Jack with his long hair is perceived as a ‘wolf-child’ or ET, loved and feared, welcomed and rejected, in particular by Joy’s still anguished father (William H Macy). It is Leo (Tom McCamus), the new partner of Joy’s mother Nancy (Joan Allen) who finds a way into Jack’s world through emotional distance and empathy.
One chilling episode is an indictment of the ever-present media and the hunt for news: the stalking outside homes of vans, curious onlookers, journalists and cameras, the damage caused by intrusive questions that become moral judgements, the commodification of one’s pain.
Room was inspired by the revelation that the sexual slavery of women is not as we thought a thing of the past, but alive in our own times, notably in the case of Josef Fritzl in Austria and Ariel Castro in the US.
At the time of writing this review, a doctor in Sweden, Martin Trennebourg, has been accused of kidnapping and raping a woman who he planned to keep as a sex slave in a bunker he had built specially for this purpose on his remote farm in southern Sweden.
Room shows that despite these horrors, adjustment and reorientation is possible in time through love and commitment. But this is never conveyed simplistically. Room is cinematic art and authenticity, not a docudrama. Rather it is a powerful guide to understanding our culture and ourselves.
Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.