One of the pleasures of modern movies is watching an artist like Cuaron at work. In the spellbinding Children of Men, his best film to date, Cuaron, 45, fills every frame with his passion and intellect. Here's a movie that grabs you hard, pops your eyes, provokes your mind and ultimately lifts your spirits. As director and co-writer, Cuaron takes on a 1992 novel by P.D. James set in 2027 in battle-battered England, the only country left to soldier on in the face of massive terrorism, immigrant invasion and global infertility (no child has been born since 2009). The death of Baby Diego, at eighteen the youngest living person, has caused a period of national mourning.
Hope is the first casualty among survivors, who include Theo (Clive Owen), a former activist playing out his days as a bureaucrat for the Ministry of Energy. Owen's powerfully implosive performance lets us see past the barriers Theo has erected around his emotions. Theo is a shell of a man until his former lover Julian (Julianne Moore) begs him to help the Fishes, underground rebels dedicated to aiding refugees, called fugees, who are regularly captured, tortured and kept in cages. Since he and Julian share the sorrow of having had a son who died, Theo agrees to slip a fugee named Kee (the remarkable newcomer Claire-Hope Ashitey) past the police to find safety with the utopian Human Project. But when Kee's secret is revealed — she's eight months pregnant — she and everyone who dares to side with her become targets for special-interest groups of conflicting and sometimes lethal motives.
Those motives can be maddeningly unclear at times. But a second viewing, which Children of Men richly rewards, deepens our understanding. Cuaron, invoking shattered landscapes from Beirut to Baghdad, is dedicated to locating shards of humanity among the ruins. That he does, not just in the person of Jasper (a hilarious and heartbreaking Michael Caine), a former political cartoonist now devoted to weed, rap music and sticking it to the system, but in the small details that measure what our planet has lost. Is it possible to capture the terrible absence of a world without children? Cuaron does it. His chief collaborator is director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, a weaver of visual miracles. No movie in the last year is more redolent of sorrowful beauty and exhilarating action. You don't just watch the scene (shot with a hand-held camera) in which Theo, Kee and other passengers jammed in a car are attacked from all sides — you live inside it, ducking each fresh, ferocious assault. The technique disappears to envelop you in the moment. That's Cuaron's magic, and it's exhilarating. I'm not usually one for political fables that include symbols such as a ship called Tomorrow. But Cuaron has a gift only the greatest filmmakers share: He makes you believe.