Room for more? GEORGIE COWAN-TURNER looks at Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s much-loved novel.
I am not surprised that Room is an Oscar contender; it is the equivalent of Twelve Years a Slave for this Oscar season, a slightly moralistic and at times uplifting adaptation of a much-loved novel. But while Room may be good enough for Hollywood, it is disappointing for Donoghue’s readers.
The room of Donoghue’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel is a garden shed, in which a five-year-old boy, Jack, and his mother are held by the perverted Old Nick. Director Lenny Abrahamson’s Room is more imaginatively constricted, but perhaps this because the film is adapted for screen by Donoghue herself. It could have done with a critical eye different to that of the author, to balance out some of the implausibilities which appear magnified when they are shown on the big screen.
The film recreates the grim subject matter but without the uplifting and often whimsical elements characteristic of the novel. This is primarily because Abrahamson struggles to translate the naivety and simplicity of Jack’s narrative on screen; often using voiceovers as an ineffective substitute for a visual representation of Jack’s gaze. When he employs this technique the effect is incredible, such as when we are first introduced to Old Nick, seeing his form only through the slats in Jack’s wardrobe. But this subtlety is undermined by Abrahamson’s decision to pan out and show us Old Nick sitting with Brie Larson’s Joy.
We are denied total access to Jack’s mind and become mere voyeurs rather than companions in Jack’s life. The film struggles to break away from simply being an adaptation of a Josef Fritzl-like story, sweetened with uplifting moments, such as those focusing on the mother-child relationship. There are cloying, exploitative moments, such as Jack’s emotional meeting with Seamus the dog, which seem to have the sole purpose of lightening the mood without adding anything substantial to the film. Instead the book has deeper nuances: it can be seen as a contemplation of childhood and innocence, and the power of adults in governing children.
Nigel M. Smith put it perfectly in the Guardian: that, if anything, Room “proves Abrahamson as a master actor’s director”. Larson is utterly convincing and a deserving contender for an Oscar. Her performance is moving and believable; she utterly captures the psychology of Joy, who is numb to almost all emotion except for her love for her son. Jacob Tremblay’s performance as Jack, a long-haired boy oblivious to the outside world and the quotidian struggles of his mother, is the standout performance of the film. Equally, the relationship between the two actors on-screen almost nullifies any of the other faults in the film; Abrahamson has beautifully captured the palpable chemistry between a mother and child who are utterly dependent on each other.
As a film Room does not know what it is trying to achieve. At times it feels brutally real, almost like a documentary, which if it was carried out throughout the film could be startlingly original. But it doesn’t, and this lack of direction means that the film as a whole cannot match the quality of its acting. The book left me feeling uplifted, and prepared to read it again. Room, however is not a film you want to watch too many times, in spite of the superb acting.