What do you tell a child born into captivity, confined to a garden shed with ‘Ma’, denied access to the outside world, to all human contact beyond his mother and his captor?
For Brie Larson in the astonishing Room, you make sure that he doesn’t even know there’s a world to miss out on. 5-year-old Jack believes that ‘Room’ is the world – outside is outer space, and nothing else. His lamp, his toys and his Ma are real, but cats and other people are “just TV”. ‘Old Nick’, he and his mother’s captor, is half-real – after all, when he’s not in Room, how can he exist?
Adapted for the screen by Emma Donoghue from her own novel, Room is a powerful examination of parenting, childhood and trauma. A two-act set-up allows the film to examine both life inside Room and the process of moving on outside it. Smartly, Ma’s abuse and abuser are left mostly to the background – the focus here is not on ‘Old Nick’ and his horrendous crime, but on the central mother-son pairing and their attempts to carve out their own life in the midst of it.
Brie Larson is consistently captivating, whether fighting to be the perfect parent while locked in a garden shed or struggling to adapt to life afterwards, to recover from her trauma. It’s at times a raw performance, though never drops into hysteria, and Larson comfortably carries the film in both its lightest and darkest moments.
Director Lenny Abrahamson takes a restrained approach to the material, allowing the actors and the script to do the heavy lifting. That simplicity pays dividends when Jack is first exposed to the wider world, a moment of transcendence carried only by clear blue skies, interrupted by telegraph poles, a mundanity that grounds the delicate moment.
The film is wrought with emotion, but never feels manipulative of the audience or simplistically sentimental. Instead this is hard-earned drama, and the script is careful to balance the toughest moments with a sweet, light sense of humour, a strain of comedy carried almost entirely by the young Jacob Tremblay.
Room is powerful, uncomplicated filmmaking, character-driven and superbly performed. Harrowing and exquisite.
Words by Dominic Preston
Room screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 11th, 12th and 13th October.