The fifth feature by Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, whose other credits include Frank and What Richard Did, Room is based on the best-selling novel by Emma Donoghue. Donoghue has suggested that her main influence was the infamous case of Josef Fritzl, and in particular the experiences of the mother and children upon their release into the outside world. The novel is a much tougher, grittier affair than the cinematic adaptation by Abrahamson. However in choosing to focus on the relationship that is at the heart of the book, Abrahamson has created a truly magnificent film about one woman’s prison, and a child’s whole world.
As the film is primarily interested in the relationship between Ma and Jake, my review must start with the central performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. Larson received her first Academy Award for her portrayal of Joy Newsome, and the award is throughly deserved. Larson is able to captivate the audience through a single look, a flash of anger, frustration, but also unconditional love flash across her face in a matter of seconds in one notable sequence involving an argument between Ma and Jack. Against a performance as engrossing as Larson’s it would be easy for Jacob Tremblay to fade into the background, but the young performer is a revelation as a child whose entire world exists within the space of four walls. Jack is not the typical petulant, spoilt child character, but a victim who is unable to comprehend the crime that has been committed against him. The character goes through a range of emotions through the film, and each one is captured wonderfully by Tremblay, in particular is the moment in which Jack is forced into the world outside of the room.
In the opening to this review I suggested that the novel by Emma Donoghue is a far more gruelling experience than the film, but it is a testament to Donoghue that her screenplay clearly understands the distinction between a novel and the cinema as a visual medium. The novel contains a number of disturbing images including the death of another child, and an extended section involving Jack’s fake illness. Donoghue took the decision to cut these sub-plots, a decision that greatly benefits the film as this would have resulted in a much darker, possibly exploitative tone. The direction by Lenny Abrahamson also deserves a special mention. Abrahamson captures the interior of the room through the use of close-ups of the main actors as well as mid-shots of Jack and Ma when they are interacting. This approach reinforces the restricted, compact enclosure the characters live in, but also allows the intimacy of the mother and child to shine through.
Room is a truly great film. The central performances are universally brilliant, the only exception being William H. Macy, who is a brilliant actor but is given such a small part that his appearance is rather distracting; but this small flaw is not enough to detract from one one of the most emotionally powerful films that I have seen in the last few years.