A mother's love

Kate Johnstone (Associate Editor, Reviews) on 'Room', the new Canadian-Irish drama film directed by Lenny Abrahamson and written by Emma Donoghue.

The novel Room received critical acclaim when it was published in 2010, and shortlisted for both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker Award. Although a powerful and original book, its subject matter meant it was not an obvious candidate for a screen adaptation. But it is now an Oscar-nominated film, with the book’s author, Emma Donoghue, responsible for the screenplay.

The first half of the film is set in the eponymous room, occupied by young Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and Ma (Brie Larson). It becomes apparently fairly early on that this room has not only a bed, wardrobe and table, but also a bath, toilet and basic cooking facilities. A skylight provides the only view. Without having to say so, it’s understood that Jack and Ma do not leave this room. But seen through Jack’s eyes, there’s no reason to leave Room. It’s all the world he’s ever known, and contains everything and everyone he loves. There’s comfort and security in the order imposed by Ma, with morning exercises, regular mealtimes and a ration on watching the fuzzy TV. They make snakes out of egg shells, bake cake for his fifth birthday, splash around in the bath. Ma sings to him, and Jack feeds from her breast. Occasionally, Ma does not get out of bed at all, and Jack must amuse himself. And they have a regular visitor, Old Nick. Jack must stay in the wardrobe when Old Nick visits, and be very quiet.

Donoghue was apparently inspired to write the story after reading about the cases of Natascha Kampusch, and Elisabeth Fritzl and her family. Anyone drawing on such deeply disturbing real-life cases has a responsibility to avoid sensationalism and voyeurism. This the film achieves with ease. We see Room through Jack’s eyes, and Jack is inevitably an unreliable narrator. But his innocence about his situation is neither sentimental nor contrived. What unfolds is a hymn to parental love, and the protective power of children’s innate adaptability to, and acceptance of, their environment.

Psychologists will inevitably find themselves wondering how a child of his age would develop in such circumstances. What would be his deficits? Would he have developed particular strengths? Is passively viewing social interaction on a TV likely to aid social development? Most importantly, if freed from Room, would normal life be possible for either Jack or Ma? These questions move to the fore in the second half of the film. Brie Larson gives an impressive performance as a victim who is determined to not be victimised. Jacob Tremblay is astonishing as Jack, for which both Larson and the director Lenny Abrahamson must share some credit. The novel was perhaps stronger in conveying the enclosed world of Room, but the film benefits from transition to the screen in the later stages.

Anyone put off seeing Room because the bones of the story sound harrowing should be reassured. Room is not harrowing, although some scenes are definitely challenging, and possibly upsetting for some. Rather, Room is a film about parenting. It allows us to see what parental love might look like stripped of the normal distractions. And it shows just how transforming that love is, not just for the child, but also the parent.

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