News that Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue’s multiple prize-winning 2010 novel Room was being adapted for the screen by the author herself will have smoothed the furrowed brows of readers fearing for the fate of their beloved book. It was inspired by the case of Josef Fritzl, who incarcerated his daughter in an Austrian basement for 24 years and systematically raped and impregnated her. It’s a grisly subject. But Donoghue was not interested in writing a lurid, true-crime case of the week.
Instead, she told her fictional story from the point of view of five-year-old-Jack, born in the Canadian basement of an unnamed captor known only as “Old Nick”, where he lives with his seven-years captive mother, known only as “Ma”. Jack’s naive narration takes some getting used to (“I count one hundred cereal and waterfall the milk that’s nearly the same white as the bowls, no splashing, we thank Baby Jesus”), but once you settle into the grim reality – that he knows nothing but this eleven-foot-square room with a single skylight – it takes on a reality of its own.
This unique perspective carries over into Irish director Lenny Abrahamson’s remarkably faithful film, with Jack as narrator. In such a small, hermetically sealed world, every detail counts, and Abrahamson, shooting very close, captures the inflated importance of every mundane detail of Ma and Jack’s routine, through which they keep each other sane.
Imagining this world is one thing; seeing it might be another, but the film cleaves close to the text (perhaps unsurprisingly, given the screenwriter), and I can’t imagine it being done with any more empathy for the central conceit, which is the life-affirming power of a mother-son bond, even in the cruellest circumstances.
Much of it is a two-hander between Brie Larson – whose career it will surely make (she’s already up for a Golden Globe, along with Donoghue and a further nomination for best drama) – and preternaturally assured newcomer Jacob Tremblay (eight when he shot the film). Their relationship is the beating heart of the film, and it goes through many changes as the story progresses. Once their routine is established – home education, vital exercise, rationed TV, breast-feeding, limited arts and crafts – it is thrown into chaos when an escape is hatched.
The trailer makes no attempts to disguise the fact that some of the film takes place away from the cramped basement in the wide open spaces. When I read the novel, I had no way of knowing which way it would go and was surprised by the escape, but since the producers and marketeers don’t wish to keep it a secret, I won’t either. It turns the film into a thriller, but throws many new questions at Jack, who is effectively born again into a world he didn’t know existed outside of the TV; it’s vital to the way the story deepens.
This shift from cabin fever to a perhaps even scarier outside world is excellently handled by Abrahamson, clearly a director of skill and compassion. The film’s final act, with its sudden influx of new characters (including good turns by Joan Allen, William H Macy and Cas Anvar, atoning for his appearance as Dodi Fayed in Diana), inevitably suffers in comparison to the ingenuity and containment of the first, but this is built into the story, so can’t really be helped.
Room is a moving, heartbreaking portrait of familial love in the face of insurmountable odds, but it also explores the complexity and hypocrisy of what we think of as “reality”, as seen through Jack’s eyes. Though the book’s many readers will know the outcome, seeing this almost unbearable nightmare realised on screen with such care and restraint is an ultimately uplifting experience.