One of the biggest surprises of this year’s Oscars’ nominations was Room, which picked up largely-unexpected nods for Best Picture and Best Director. Even Lenny Abrahamson, Room’s director, was surprised by his inclusion on the list (at the expense of Ridley Scott, if the pundits are to be believed).
Abrahamson – who broke through with the excellent What Richard Did (the most commercially successful Irish film of 2012) and the somewhat-disappointing Frank – makes a convincing case for his nomination with this, his sixth feature film. Room is an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s book of the same name; Donoghue – who also wrote the screenplay – made it to the bestseller list with a story inspired by Josef Fritzl. It’s the story of a young woman (Brie Larson) imprisoned and raped over the course of seven years, and of her five year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay).
The story is as much about this mother and son’s escape from the physical confines of their prison – ‘Room’ – as it is about their psychological incarceration, and how leaving a space doesn’t necessarily entail escaping it. In order to emphasise that, Abrahamson uses a variety of cinematic techniques to assign the film’s physical spaces a specific emotional tenor.
For example, the film opens within ‘Room’ – the electronically-sealed, skylit garden shed that houses Jack and ‘Ma’ – and one might expect the cinematography to emphasise its claustrophobic confinement. Instead, Abrahamson – and director of photography Danny Cohen – use soft lighting, handheld camerawork and wide angle lenses to bring us into Jack’s perspective. To Jack, Room is the only world he’s ever known (he’s grown up believing that there’s nothing outside its walls), and despite the externally-traumatic circumstances, we begin to understand his comfort within the room: his bond with his mother, his familiarity with his surroundings.
Of course, as audience members we’re regularly reminded of the true nature of Room, whether by the narrative – the nightly visits of “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers) – or subtle shifts within the cinematography that either draw us into Larson’s head (as her character contemplates telling Jack of their true circumstances) or reflect Jack’s disillusionment with his home as he comes to understand what it represents. Taken cumulatively, the shaky naturalistic cinematography becomes polluted by its proximity to suffering; it allows Abrahamson to, once he’s assumed a rigid, rectilinear mode of photography in the outside world, return to this mode to great effect. With the merest tremor of camera, to evoke his character’s mental fragility. To return us to Room.
I’m talking around the particulars of Ma and Jack’s escape deliberately. I don’t intend to ruin that experience for first time viewers; it’s the film’s strongest moment, scored to This Will Destroy You’s soaring post-rock and imbued with an uplifting thrill tempered with jagged tension. However not every critic is enamoured with this scene as I am; Laurence Barber aligns Abrahamson’s choice to accompany the escape from Room with a long shot with a refusal to intellectualise the circumstances. Mike D’Angelo was blunter in his assessment of that decision: “Not sure how you fuck up a moment as simple and potentially overpowering as a child’s first, belated view of the world, but Abrahamson somehow manages.”
Due respect to D’Angelo – one of my favourite film critics – but he’s dead wrong when he asserts that Abrahamson would have been better to adopt an aspect ratio change in that moment (à la the “Wonderwall” moment in Mommy). That seems to me to be a significant misunderstanding of what Abrahamson trying to do with Room. The opening section of the film is, for the most part, not intended to feel oppressive. It’s intended to feel warm, comfortable, welcoming and even safe – because that’s how Jack regards it. It’s only when we turn to Room later in the film that we see it for what it really is, with Cohen adopting hard lighting and longer-lens photography to emphasise its smallness. If Abrahamson had depicted Room as claustrophobic from the get-go, he would’ve smothered the core of the film – Jack’s journey to real freedom.
Granted, this would imply that we’re sharing Jack’s perspective, which cuts to the core of Barber and D’Angelo’s objections: why, when Jack first enters the outside world, don’t we see it through his eyes? The easy explanation is that, in the circumstances of Jack’s escape, he simply doesn’t see anything at that point (note that we see the world through his eyes later in the scene). But it’s also an important moment to highlight the smallness of Room to the audience, with the aerial shot revealing it as little more than a dingy cast-iron shed. Even more importantly, it again associates an emotional character to a shot, which allows Abrahamson to rhyme the physical escape from Room with the psychological escape achieved in the final scene by returning to the same shot.
That said, I concur with one of Barber’s key objections, which is that Room is uninterested in intellectualising its subject matter. While I appreciate the screenplay’s omission of events like Old Nick’s arrest and trial, its last half tends to shy away from complex issues in favour of simpler emotional catharsis. Rather than delving into Ma’s guilt, we hold tight to Jack’s perspective, trading serious psychological investigation for dog walks and haircuts. While I appreciate that Room is more interested in creating an emotional narrative than an intellectual one, it does feel like a missed opportunity to expand the film’s scope.
If you listen to the bookies, Brie Larson has a solid chance of walking away with the golden statuette for her work here (after she won the Golden Globe, Sportsbet has her in front by a mile, though not everyone’s as optimistic). I feel like the expectation of “Oscar-winning performance” is an unfair one, but Larson is undeniably great (as always). She does similar work to her performance in the excellent Short Term 12, never allowing her emotional fragility to overwhelm a character who is too strong, resourceful and human to be reduced to victimhood. Her supporting cast are equally impressive; the bar is set pretty low for child performances and Tremblay leaves it far behind, while contributions from the likes of William H. Macy, Joan Allen and Tom McCamus provide the post-Room events with necessary weight.
Beyond the cinematography, the screenwriting, the acting, Room is a powerfully affecting film; I’m not someone who typically cries in movies, but it certainly brought a tear to my eye on at least one occasion (even if I couldn’t help but realise it was in the most emotionally-manipulative moment – I guess manipulation’s okay if it works). My wife, meanwhile, spent pretty well the entirety of the film in tears. That’s testament to the success of the film, which more than warrants its inclusion alongside the big names at this year’s Academy Awards.