The news that Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel Room was to be made into a film was quite a big deal for me. I had deliberately avoided reading the novel when it blew up –one of those books that ‘got everyone talking’ and, knowing only the basic plotline, I shied away, thinking it mawkish and exploitative, not to mention a modern duplicate of John Fowles The Collector (1963).
When finally getting around to reading Donoghue’s novel, I was shocked by how sensitive, immersive, alienating and inescapable the world (or room) of Room (2016, dir. Lenny Abrahamson) is. Narrated by a five-year-old boy—the son of a woman who was kidnapped and imprisoned seven years earlier by his father—it is a story of, on the one side, motherhood and growing up, and, on the other, imprisonment, rape and violence.
One of things that most worried me on hearing that Room was to make the transition to the big screen was how this narration was going to work. Sure, kids can be great in movies. With the right balance of believability and, dare I say it, ‘star quality’, a child actor can add a much deeper dimension to a film’s character development, introducing a whole new generational level of understanding. But, they can ruin it just as easily and for every Bugsy Malone (1976) there’s a Home Alone (1990).
Jacob Tremblay exceeded all my expectations and more in the role of Jack. It is such a difficult part. Shrouded in a veil of childish innocence, he is the most complex character and the one on whom the duty of narration falls. Not only does Tremblay display Jack’s warped worldview but also his brilliantly creative mind, his bravery, his extreme confusion and trauma in the transition to the outside world and his exorcising of suppressed demons when visiting Room for one last time. It’s an incredible performance which feels completely believable – if only he were nominated, could this have been the youngest ever Oscar winner?
But Tremblay’s performance is not in isolation. The connection between Brie Larson and Tremblay onscreen is one of the most heart-warming, most frustrating and most believable mother-son relationships I have ever seen. Recognised for her outstanding achievement with an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role, if Larson doesn’t walk away with the prize I will be astounded. Since first seeing her as Grace in the incredibly moving Short Term 12 (2013) what has struck me about her performance is the strikingly believable emotional connections she creates onscreen. In Room, Larson is utterly compelling.
But what most impressed me about Room was how the incredibly immersive experience of reading Donoghue’s novel is recreated when watching it onscreen. The viewer is always subtly positioned in Jack’s head; we see him but we also see through his eyes. I’m not sure whose decision it was to put a huge plot spoiler in the trailer, but the tension that Lenny Abrahamson creates onscreen induces a temporary amnesia, so wound up is the viewer in willing Jack on.
With only a paltry four Oscar Nominations (though they are some of the biggies), I only hope that Room, its cast and technical crew, achieve the recognition they deserve. Incredible. *****