An in-depth look at Alfonso Cuarón's dystopian masterpiece, the century's most prescient and dazzling vision of the future gone bad
There. I said it. Children of Men, unveiled back in 2006 to warm reviews but less than exemplary box office returns, is the best film of the 21st century so far. Of course, it isn't, because such claims are entirely subjective, and no film is single-handedly worthy of that accolade. But Children of Men is, at the very least, right up there, close to the top, a real contender for the title, a film that seems to say so much about our world today, gets better (and scarier) with every passing year, but that's also deeply thrilling, beautiful, and dense.
There's been no greater time than now to reacquaint (or introduce) yourself to Alfonso Cuarón's seminal work of dystopian fiction. In recent years, it has experienced a necessary critical reevaluation, a second wave of filmgoers who have “seen the light.” If you haven't watched Children of Men since it first hit theatres, a revisit is recommended: like so many who saw it, myself included, there's a good chance you didn't quite realise you were watching a work of staggering genius on that initial viewing.
This guide, meanwhile, is an insight into the making of the film and its influences, a personal appreciation, a look into its world, characters, the actors, the subtext. But mostly it's a tribute to one of the best films ever made, to be read in order, as to tell the story – of both the film's narrative and the film's production – or in any order you see fit, on an entry-by-entry basis.
A is for Alfonso Cuarón
Though born in Mexico City, filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón – who started his career with films as diverse as kids' film The Little Princess, Dickens update Great Expectations and sexy drama Y tu mamá también – has resided in London since 2000. And so with Children of Men, he delivers a film with the deep and detailed understanding of the city that only a true Londoner could provide. The director's panache for themes and an affinity for a constantly moving camera and documentary-like approach creates a world that's rich in detail but rarely expositional – a film that was, in retrospect, years ahead of its time. Yet for Cuarón, Children of Men remains a bit of a sore subject. Made with the goodwill earned off the back of the success of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it was a project he flirted with for years before finally committing to in 2001. But its troubled production and subsequent failure at the box office left him disillusioned, to the extent that he disappeared for seven years after its release. In the wake of his more recent – and monumental – successes with films like Gravity and Roma, and a slew of Academy Awards, Cuarón has since carved out a place as one of the most acclaimed of all modern filmmakers. But it is somewhat ironic that his best film is the one which earned him the least plaudits – and the least happiness.
B is for Baby Diego
The death of 18-year-old Diego Ricardo sets the stage for Children of Men's chilling opener. As the last person to be born – in 2009 – he earned his nickname “Baby Diego,” and is said to have been killed in a pub brawl in Buenos Aires after refusing to sign an autograph. In a society riddled with complete infertility, a news report tells us that Diego spent his life as a huge celebrity, but also as someone whose existence was been made difficult by his status as the youngest person on Earth, encouraging arrogance and bad behaviour. Baby Diego was played by actor Juan Gabriel Yacuzzi (who hasn't had another film credit since), and is only glimpsed, briefly, in TV footage. Following his death it's said that the mantel of “youngest human” falls to a woman of eighteen years, five months, and eleven days old.
C is for Clive Owen
Clive Owen's best ever screen performance is also his least showy. As the former activist turned alcoholic civil servant, Theo Faron, haunted by the death of his child by an unspecific flu pandemic, Owen's beaten and disillusioned turn perfectly embodies a world that is limping futilely onwards without reason or purpose. Owen's role – devoid of sexiness and coolness – acts as something of a subversion of the roles he was better known for at the time, such as Closer or King Arthur. Even as Children of Men enters action spectacle territory, his dejected turn keeps the material grounded. In a brilliant and often unnoticed detail, Theo never picks up or uses a gun for the entire film; a perfect extension of his role as the film's “accidental protagonist,” whose deep-seated goodness implores him to stand up for something in a world that believes in nothing.
D is for Dystopia
“The idea was to bring the third world into London.” This is how Cuarón framed his aesthetic approach, citing Mexico City as inspiration for the grimy look of the future capital. As such, it could argued that no filmic dystopia has ever felt as realistic – nor as inevitable – as the one that provides the backdrop to Children of Men. This is not the stuff of Brazil or Blade Runner, but a future London that feels like just a nudge away from our own. “Britain soldiers on,” we hear declared during the film's opening; the rest of the world, it's said, has fallen into chaos, reason unknown, though it's suggested that global warming, social division, pollution, nuclear war, and terrorism have all played a part. The country has closed its doors to immigrants – a shatteringly prescient insight into Brexit – while refugees are rounded up and put in camps. Elsewhere, we glimpse smog-filled streets, roads jam-packed with tuk-tuks, and train carriages with metal grates on the windows; the power of this dystopia is not in it outlandish gadgets and innovations, but in a frightening sense that we are all too close. “2027,” we're told, but we might already be here.
E is for Emmanuel Lubezki
In one sense, Emmanuel Lubezki's gliding cinematography, built from extended takes, is what defines the entire visual look and overall feel of Children of Men. As Alfonso Cuarón's frequent collaborator, the three-time, Oscar-winning cinematographer perfects here what has since become his trademark style here – a vérité-like documentary approach, designed to transport you to the places of the film and take advantage of “real time.” Every shot in Children of Men feels like a mini masterpiece of composition. Lubezki was nominated for an Oscar for his work, but was beaten by fellow Mexican cinematographer Guillermo Navarro for Pan's Labyrinth (a good looking film, sure, but nowhere near as gorgeous or landmark Lubezki's groundbreaking work here).
F is for Fishes
A militant immigrants' rights group that are alternately poised as both the protagonists and antagonists within the world of Children of Men. The group is initially led by Julianne Moore's activist Julian, a position which later falls to Luke (12 Years a Slave's Chiwetel Ejiofor). As a group, the true morality of the Fishes is left somewhat ambiguous, though they show a tendency and preference for violence, which is displayed throughout. At one point it's suggested that the government stage terrorist attacks and blame them on the Fishes to create fear around the organisation. Charlie Hunnam, star of Pacific Rim, also plays a member of the group in an early role – as the insufferable, trigger happy, dreadlock-sporting goon Patric.
G is for Government
A tyrannical government reigns over the populace in Children of Men, Britain held in place – though it appears just barely – by its status as a Police State. Theo works for the government in an unspecific but seemingly arbitrary job that seems to evoke that of Winston Smith's role in George Orwell's dystopian classic 1984 (in the novel, he's an academic and Oxford don). Theo's cousin, meanwhile, played by Danny Huston, occupies a high-ranking position as the Minister for Culture, overseeing the “The Ark of the Arts” (housed within Battersea Power Station), where the British government have “salvaged” famous works from all over the world, including Michelangelo's David, Picasso's Guernica, and Banksy's British Cops Kissing – a nod to Britain's colonial past.
H is for The Human Project
“The Human Project” is an alleged and secret scientific group, based somewhere in the region of the Azores, whose sole purpose is in trying to curing the world's infertility problem. The Human Project's ship, the Tomorrow (and the only evidence that we get to suggest the group does, in fact, exist), is conspicuously named after their bid to secure a future for the planet.
I is for Infertility
No reason is given as to why humanity has been stricken with mass infertility. It's suggested that it might be a side effect of a flu pandemic, though Cuarón – wisely – leaves the true cause to our imaginations. For all the ways in which Children of Men parallels the real world, its main conceit – that of an underpopulated planet – is the least recognisable aspect of this fictional future. Overpopulation, after all, is one of the biggest issues facing our modern world today.
J is for Julianne Moore/Julian
Julianne Moore plays the coincidentally name Julian – leader of the Fishes, until she's – spoiler alert! – unexpectedly killed during a roadside ambush. Julian, one of the film's only American characters, was once in a loving relationship with Theo, though they broke up following the death of their child, Dylan. Following the tragedy, it's suggested that Theo descended into apathy and alcoholism, while Julian found her path as an anarchist. She asks for Theo's assistance in securing transit papers for a young woman through a meeting with his cousin, Nigel, a high-ranking government official. Theo manages to get them – though only on the basis that he accompanies her. The death of Julian provides perhaps what is the film's most shocking moment, since she's played by arguably the film's biggest star. It's a great and clever narrative subversion, a way to ensure film where it feels like “anything can happen.”
K is for Kee
Kee, played by Clare-Hope Ashitey, is the first woman to become pregnant in eighteen years, providing the catalyst for the story. After Julian's death, Theo agrees to deliver Kee to the Human Project after overhearing the Fishes' plans to murder him and exploit Kee's baby in order to trigger a war with the government. On Kee's African descent, Cuarón said: “The fact that this child will be the child of an African woman has to do with the fact that humanity started in Africa. We're putting the future of humanity in the hands of the dispossessed and creating a new humanity to spring out of that.” Her relationship with Theo reportedly provided much of the inspiration for that of Ellie and Joel in the hit video game franchise The Last of Us.
L is for Long Take
After experimenting with long takes in his early films, Children of Men marks the first time that Cuarón would create an entire film that comes to feel like it's made out of them. There are multiple extended takes in the film, but there are two, in particular, which seem to define it. The first – and most famous – is a heart-stopping car chase, which sees Theo, Julian, Luke, and Kee ambushed by an group on a country road. Cuarón was initially told that the five-minute shot would be impossible, but persevered to make it a reality, using a rigorous camera set up – nicknamed “the doggicam” – and tight choreography. The result is as immersive and technical dazzling as any long take in all of cinema, placing the viewer right inside the car. Later, a six-minute shot in the midst of an active warzone, inspired by the Battle of Algiers, is made to feel like we're watching genuine footage captured from the ground, Theo guiding Kee and her new born baby through the chaos, blood splattering on the camera.
M is for Michael Caine
“Pull my finger.” With this now unforgettable line, Michael Caine's best role of the 2000 was immortalised. As Jasper Palmer, Theo's oldest – and perhaps only – friend, he lives in the countryside near Canterbury in a secluded house in the woods. Theo goes to visit Jasper after the death of Baby Diego (and a near death experience of his own), the two talking about the state of the world over a strain of cannabis called “Strawberry Cough.” Deeply critical of the government, Jasper retains an optimistic outlook for the future of mankind, and is willing to die for his beliefs. His wife, Janice – once an award-winning journalist – has been reduced to a vegetative state after being tortured by the government. A hippie with a panache for cannabis and the word “amigo,” Caine based Jasper on his own friendship with Beatle John Lennon.
N is for Based on a Novel
The original novel, The Children of Men, was written by British author P.D. James – a writer best known for her detective novels – as a way of exploring the question: “If there were no future, how would we behave?” While the novel deals with many of the same themes, James' original novel is a lot less action-orientated and far more biblically-minded, its story bearing just a loose resemblance to that of the final film (the character of “Kee,” for example, doesn't actually exist in the book; it's Julian who gets pregnant instead, and it happens towards the very end). Despite the differences, James – who died in 2014 at the ripe old age of 94 – was reportedly “proud” of the film, confident that it captured the essence of her writing. Shockingly, Cuarón never read the book, fearing it would warp his vision.
O is for Oana Pellea
A small but crucial role for Romanian actress Oana Pellea, who plays an immigrant named Marichka. In a Britain that has come to fear immigrants, she selflessly aids Theo and Kee when they arrive in Bexhill. Awed by the sight of the baby, and aware of what it means for mankind, she does whatever she can to get them to safety. Despite speaking no English, she guides them through Bexhill, saves their lives on multiple occasions, and even delivers them to their final destination – the boat that will take Kee to the Tomorrow. He role is representational of the blind and misguided hatred for immigrants in Children of Men's world: as Britain's own citizens tear themselves apart, it's a refugee who secures the fate of humanity.
P is for Pam Ferris
A hippie-ish midwife and member of the Fishes who has been assigned to assist Kee, Miriam – played by veteran British actor Pam Ferris – acts a selfless escort whose allegiance to Julian allows her to put her trust in Theo. In one of the film's most affecting scenes, Miriam recalls the sudden rise in infant deaths she experienced in the old world. Ultimately Miriam sacrifices herself for the greater cause, creating a diversion that allows for Theo and Kee to escape during a bus ride into Bexhill immigration camp. Her fate at the end of the movie is unknown.
Q is for Quietus
One of few overtly “dystopian” touches in Children of Men, Quietus refers to both a government sanctioned suicide ritual in which people over sixty are encourage to kill themselves en mass for the good of the larger population, and also the kits that are handed out in order to enact the process. Theo drives past one such ceremony during the car ride to his cousin's residence. Later, knowing that they're about to be captured and probably tortured, Jasper uses a Quietus kit on his wife, Janice. The concept is explored with more clarity in James' original novel, where mass rituals are regularly witnessed by Theo.
R is for Refugees (Fugee)
The Britain of Children of Men is deeply afraid of refugees (nicknamed “Fugees”), to the extent that they're rounded up and kept in holding cages, many of them later deported to Bexhill refugee camp. “You people disgust me,” a policeman tells Theo partway through the world, mistaking him for a refugee – a deft summary of the government's intolerance of immigration and the attitudes of those supposedly policing the country.
S is for Syd
Scottish actor Peter Mullan makes a crucial third act appearance as “Syd,” an opportunistic policeman who agrees to smuggle Theo, Miriam, and Kee into Bexhill immigration camp under the guise that they're refugees. He quickly changes his tune, however, when he realises that Kee has given birth to a baby and tries to take it for his own. Arguably the film's most cathartic moment comes when Syd peers out of a doorway, intent on killing Theo; Theo, scrambling for a weapon, brings a metallic box down on Syd's head, crushing his brains. Syd's fate remains largely unknown by the end of the film, but it's hard to imagine anyone surviving a blow like that.
T is for Tinnitus
The condition of tinnitus – a sensation of ringing in the ear – is used as thematic device throughout the film. At the beginning, upon her reunion with Theo, she explains the sound is the “ear cells dying.” She continues to explain that “that's their swan song. Once it's gone you'll never hear that frequency again. Enjoy it while it lasts.” The repeated use of tinnitus on the film's soundtrack – during battle scenes, or to denote the sudden death of character – plays into Julian's line about never hearing the frequencies again, often signalling Theo's last interaction with an individual.
U is for Underground Bombings
During principal photography on Children of Men, the July 2005 London bombings took place, killing 56 people and wounding more than 800. It was an attack that proved eerily similar to the film's opening scene, which depicts the bombing of a cafe on Fleet Street. The attack prompted a conversation about shutting down production, but ultimately the studio and crew persevered, based on the notion that the film was impossible to film anywhere else but London.
V is for Five (V) Writers
Children of Men marks what must be one of very few cases in which a genuinely great film is credited to five – count 'em – writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby. Clive Owen is also said to have provided uncredited material and contributed to Theo's dialogue and character.
W is for War
The rumblings of war, both real and imaginary, hang over Children of Men – from its very first frame to its very last. The film is packed to the brim with allusions to the horrors of war, its imagery evoking everything from the Holocaust (the way immigrants and refugees are rounded up is reminiscent of the ghettos of WWII), while documentary-styled footage heavily suggests the news coverage of the Iraq War, Cuarón's reference – and blending – of multiple wars within the film allowing it to feel both historically weighty and totally contemporary at once.
X is for Bexhill
The town of Bexhill, or Bexhill-on-Sea, has been transformed into a sprawling immigrant city – no so different from the prison island depicted in John Carpenter's admittedly pulpier Escape from New York. Bexhill is made to feel like an active war zone, its aesthetic inspired by the ruined or bombed out cities like Chernobyl and Baghdad. Its position as a war zone is furthered when – upon Theo and Kee's arrival – an uprising begins and they are thrown into scenes of endless chaos, buildings exploding around them, dust filling every frame.
Y is for Youth
After the cut to black that ends the film, it culminates on the sound of a child's laughter – a reminder of a lost world, or a note of hope? Cuarón leaves the answer up to interpretation, though his own view – “I’m absolutely pessimistic about the present, but I’m very optimistic about the future” – suggests a more hopeful conclusion to this otherwise dim vision of what's to come.
Z is for Slavoj Zizek
Some of the most insightful and critical analysis of Children of Men comes from Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek, whose writings actually inspired Cuarón's approach to the film. Zizek, a huge fan, collected his own thoughts for a feature on the original DVD release (and can be heard in the compilation video above). “I think that the film gives the best diagnosis of ideological despair of late capitalism, of a society without history,” he explains. “This, I think, is a true despair of the film. The true infertility is the very lack of meaningful historical experience.”
Children of Men is currently streaming on Netflix in the UK and is available to rent or buy on multiple streaming services.