From the pages of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, which was shortlisted for the 2010 Booker prize, director Lenny Abrahamson (Adam & Paul) translates the story of a kidnapping from a child’s point of view into a tripartite structured film with corresponding editing techniques.
This story has humble beginnings in a garden shed, with four restrictive walls which seem to give reason and provide a metaphor for the isolative state of mother Joy (BrieLarson) and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay). They exist separately from the world in their own little self-contained universe, governed by ordinary daily routines, that are made into something much greater by an enduring bond between mother and son. The style of the first half of the film is reminiscent of the diary-like approach of Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away (2000), once he is stranded on his exotic island. We feel locked into the same habits as Jack and his Ma as we repeatedly watch them make food, clean and ‘do track’ across the narrow width of ‘room’. Though, there is something more familiar to us about their confinement than Chuck Noland’s in Cast Away. We see Chuck’s normal life before the crash and what we witness is his divergence from society and his uneasy return. With Room, we may feel as if we have been dropped through the skylight of the shed into something quite concrete and permanent. So cleverly, we are experiencing life from Jack’s perspective- a young child whose familiarity with this shed is so strong that he casually refers to it as ‘room’, as if it were a character in its own right.
It is within the first third of the film that we are allowed a glimpse of ‘Old Nick’, Joy’s kidnapper and Jack’s father who remains strange and a more or less unknown character. The brief views we have of him are through slats in a wardrobe that Jack sleeps in. Jack’s knowledge of his own father is limited and, in the book at least, influenced by TV. “He doesn’t look like the TV guy with a beard and horns and stuff”, is Donoghue’s sneaky way of likening Old Nick to the devil himself. On a first viewing, Nick’s anonymity can be fairly frustrating because we anticipate something to be revealed, but…spoiler alert, nothing is. And it isn’t until the latter half of the film that we are handed any scraps of information about Joy’s kidnapping. Interestingly, it seems very easy to overlook Joy, during the early stages of the film. Surely this means that both Donoghue and Abrahamson convincingly mimicked a child’s tendency to see ‘mum’ rather than a person with a history and an identity which was always there. Considering this, we might then see Joy as Chuck- someone changed by their imprisonment but not defined by it. Tim Robey’s Telegraph review of Room, suggested the idea of the shed being a literal example of mental imprisonment and Jack as a little voice in Joy’s head, reminding her of escape.
What this film seems to do best at is showing things as they are or at least as a gritty insight into what we might expect of a real life event such as this. Donoghue’s poignant writing resembles that of Alice Sebold whose novel The Lovely Bones (2002) shares parallels with Room. It makes us wait for the Hollywood happy ending. It raises, as would come with the territory, controversial issues surrounding mental illness, suicide and nature versus nurture, as Jack’s long hair implies femininity, learned from his Ma or naturally occurring having never been exposed to gender norms. Notice how he cuts his hair and plays football with boys after their escape. It seems possible to miss the room when we are taken away from the stability of repeated daily routine to a choppier and ever changing outside environment. And I think the biggest question this film poses is- how much are we missing out on?