THE IMMEDIATE IMPRESSION YOU get of Lenny Abrahamson’s Room is that it is a horror story wrapped up in a fairytale. Emma Donoghue, who wrote the novel and adapted it for the film, was inspired by the true story of Josef Fritzl, who imprisoned his daughter Elisabeth in his basement and subjected her to physical and sexual abuse––even fathering seven children by her––for twenty-four years. Room, however, is neither a horror film nor a thriller, but an exploration of the unconditional love between son and mother––a mother, in this case, who builds a world to protect her son from the reality of his life.
It is the fifth birthday of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who lives with his “ma” Joy (Brie Larson) in a squalid ten-foot-by-ten-foot shed with a wall, a sink, and a skylight. Joy was abducted seven years ago and imprisoned inside the shed by “Old Nick”, with whom she has been forced to adopt the role of a sort of submissive wife in order to survive. Joy will not, however, allow her son to share her misery, and has made the hellish surroundings in which the pair live a sort of fantasy land where the lavatory cistern is an ocean, the space under the bed is a cave where the “eggshell snake”––several dozens of eggshells connected with a piece of string––lives, and the wardrobe a safe area in which Jack sleeps when Old Nick comes to the shed every few days to rape his mother.
There is something about the depiction of the situation in Room which doesn’t carry the emotional weight that it should.
The premise of Room is inspiring, touching, and disturbing in equal measure, but there is something about its depiction which doesn’t carry the emotional weight that it should. It is surely the case that this impression is to illustrate how effective the methods Joy employs to protect her young son have been; however, the result in a dramatic sense is that without a profound suggestion of horror to serve as contrast, then the resourcefulness of Joy doesn’t appear to be as remarkable as it is, and the overall sense you get is less disturbing, less life-affirming, and less powerful. For instance, readers of the book will note there is the reference only to one of Joy’s previous children––a baby who died with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck––and not to an earlier stillbirth; it is also mentioned repeatedly in the novel, but only twice in the film, that Joy still breastfeeds Jack. These are not major plot points, but they are indicative of a certain cinematic restraint which weakens the central message of the film.
Room does, however, succeed as a metaphor for those sorts of ugly, abusive, and all-too-common relationships in which the abuser cuts their partner off from their friends and family and virtually imprisons them in their home, creating such a sorry reality that the abuse victim is forced to tell their child or children stories to protect them from the truth. The scene in which Old Nick, sounding more like a frustrated husband than a kidnapper and a rapist, tells Joy he was sacked springs to mind, and the piano score, by Stephen Rennick, suggests the serenity of home life rather than the horror of imprisonment in the shed of a stranger.
Brie Larson, as Joy, gives a performance that is nearly without fault, and seven-year-old Jacob Tremblay is outstanding.
It is thanks to the excellent work of cinematographer Danny Cohen and production designer Ethan Tobman that Room seems much larger than it in fact is, as Jack perceives it to be. Cohen shoots low and wide, which creates the sense that we are seeing the world through Jack’s eyes, while Tobman designed Room to be an “inverted Rubik’s Cube” with removable exterior blocks so that the camera could be outside the room without disturbing the set.
Brie Larson, as Joy, gives a performance that is nearly without fault. Seven-year-old Jacob Tremblay, with whom she shares an almost uncanny resemblance, is outstanding––much to the credit of the director as it is to the young actor––though his narration is often ineffective. There are certain plot points which stretch credulity, and Room lacks the sheer emotional force that you feel ought to be present. It is intermittently, however, an extraordinarily touching portrayal of maternal love and resilience.