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7 March 2024

Are we really living in Children of Men?

Britain feels like an even worse version of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 dystopian film.

By George Walker

Grim visions of quasi-apocalyptic Britain are never far from our screens. From the pioneering social realism of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh – whose work sounded a long howl for the social settlement torn apart by Thatcherism – to the horrifying depictions of nuclear warfare in the Eighties’ Threads, there’s a deep history of British dystopia on film.  

Two new features show a Britain in the throes of social fissures that feel both uncanny and emblematic of existential threat. There’s The Kitchen, directed by Kibwe Tavares and Daniel Kaluuya, which takes gentrification to its logical conclusion as London’s final social housing estate struggles to survive. And The End We Start From, directed by Mahalia Belo, showing a single mother’s quest to raise her child while the nation is overcome by biblical flooding, uneasily reminding audiences of Britain’s dilapidated and dangerous infrastructure. But the modern cinematic benchmark for this apocalyptic turn remains Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006).

The opening shots show us that everything about Children of Men’s future London is awry. A huddle of people in a coffee shop weep by its TV; tuk-tuks swerve through the streets à la Mad Max; billboard adverts don’t display the latest McDonald’s burger but remind citizens to report all immigrants to the authorities. There’s something different from contemporary London but not too different. For a minute, the viewer has been fooled by the film’s realism; a non-diegetic newsflash tells us this is 2027, just three years from today, before a terrorist bombing in the same coffee shop reveals the film’s dystopian core.

Cuarón plunges you into a quasi-fascist Britain that, because of a global fertility crisis plunging the world into crisis, has surrendered to its basest instincts about the immigrant “other”. Theo, a revolutionary-turned-disaffected-bureaucrat, is plunged back into the heart of the resistance when he joins a ragtag insurrectionist militia led by his ex-wife to save the planet’s only pregnant woman, a refugee – especially important in the context of the country’s authoritarian turn – named Kee.

As the years have passed since Children of Men’s release in 2006, it has only felt more real. Cuarón said that he simply looked at the visible trends in Britain at the beginning of the 21st century and predicted where they would go. While it hardly disturbed the box office upon release, almost 20 years later, Children of Men is widely cited as one of the best films of the Noughties. With its themes of ecological collapse and pandemic disease, the film became a cultural touchpoint during the Covid lockdowns, as scores of online commentaries declared: “It’s like living in Children of Men.” Were they wrong?

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“The truth was,” writes Danny Dorling in Shattered Nation: Inequality and the Geography of a Failing State (2022), “the state was falling apart, with rising resentment in the ‘peripheral regions and nations’, a fall in Conservative support in the Home Counties, a tacit acceptance of huge levels of inequality as normal, and a general floundering about in the dark as one crisis morphed into the next.” Dorling, a geographer, applies his deceptively simple (but revealing) mode of analysis to Britain’s national decline, drawing on empirical studies to argue that the nation “shatters” when it fails to realise its full, messy existence. For Dorling, Britain’s high point of equality was 1973, and the country has been in free-fall ever since. 

Speaking to Dorling, you sense his hope that things have to get better despite the observable reality around us. “I actually think it’s quite likely, because, historically, when a state in Europe does this badly and gets to this point, normally things do turn around. Unfortunately, it’s very slowly, so it could take 20 or 30 years, so it could feel quite bad for some time to come.

“There was a PhD student in 1925, his name was Hugh Dalton, future Labour chancellor of the Exchequer, and he did a project about the inequality of the time. Surprisingly, he found it was actually getting better, but nobody felt it. Nobody felt better because there was the general strike, it felt like revolution was on the horizon, and there was mass unemployment.”

By contrast, in Children of Men’s near future, Britain is fully apathetic. The late cultural critic Mark Fisher wrote that the film was “dominated by the sense that the damage has been done. The catastrophe is neither waiting down the road, nor has it already happened. Rather, it is being lived through… Action is pointless; only senseless hope makes sense.” And yet, as Theo guides Kee across Britain’s wastelands, freeing her from the clutches of the cynical and self-destructive revolutionaries, and doing everything it takes to get her and her baby to safety, he seemingly rediscovers his faith in human society.

For Dorling, an incremental policy programme that decommodifies infrastructure like housing and education may start to reverse this national malaise. “You don’t have a revolution,” he said, “you simply tinker: you tinker with some regulations and you keep tinkering until you notice a change, and you might have to tinker quite fast at first. As a government, you have a series of measures and you must be honest and say to people, house prices are probably going to go down by 1 per cent here, it’s not going to be five or ten – just one – and that will make people think differently about what they’re going to buy.”

In Children of Men, however, policy solutions have been replaced by an enlarged, authoritarian state. At the end of the film, Theo and Kee escape the hellscape of Bexhill refugee camp – which are perhaps Cuarón’s eeriest predictions of all – rowing her into the Channel to the mysterious “Human Project” organisation, the viewer never knowing whether Kee and her child make it out alive. Theo doesn’t, but his fight for what’s right in spite of the circumstances potentially secures humanity’s future. The question for Britain in 2024 is whether we’re up for it or not.

[See also: What is Brick Lane without bagels?]


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