Room tries to be universal - but it's just as trapped as its characters

When the kidnapped mother and son in Room (15) leave captivity, it's supposed to be a grand metaphor. Yet the film stays can't free itself from its own "Room".

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The Irish director Lenny Abrahamson makes films about people sealed off inside their own worlds – and what happens when they meet unsympathetic reality. His characters have ranged from junkies (Adam and Paul) to the privileged elite (What Richard Did); from a man with learning difficulties (Garage) to a musician in a giant fibreglass head (Frank). The cocoon in his new picture, an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Room scripted by the novelist, is the most literal one yet. As a teenager, Joy (Brie Larson) was kidnapped by a stranger and imprisoned in a fortified, soundproofed shed in his back garden. She is still there. The film begins seven years later on the fifth birthday of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), Joy’s son by her captor. Despite the frisson of Fritzl, the focus is kept tightly on mother and son. With their bone-white androgyny and lank hair, they are like the same person in small and medium size.

Jack is a bright child who regards his cramped world with wonder. Waking up each morning, he addresses objects in his surroundings as cherished friends (“Hello, ‘Lamp’”) and marvels at the difference between television and life (“TV persons are flat and made of colours but me and you are real”). Perkiness is harder to come by for Joy. The effort of maintaining the comforting illusion for Jack that the world extends no further than “Room” (like a name, it has no definite article) has taken its toll on her. When she stares absently into the middle distance she seems unreachable, as though she has already vacated her body. Part of the brilliance of Larson’s performance comes from her ability to suggest interior turmoil while all is serene on the surface.

The movie is attuned to this dislocation between inner and outer worlds. Danny Cohen’s cinematography is big on close-ups but it also plays with spatial disorientation, so that “Room” itself seems positively roomy. The screenplay has largely jettisoned Jack’s interior monologue but the film puts us behind his eyes visually instead, showing “Room” as it appears to him. (“It went every direction,” he says. “All the way to the end. It never finished.”)

A sparing use of Steadicam brings an air of weightlessness, and off-kilter compositions emphasise space. Viewed from above as he lies on “Rug”, Jack could be languishing on a baseball pitch. A wide shot shows him making shadow-puppets in a patch of sunshine thrown on the wall by the one skylight. The camerawork has a yearning quality that challenges the dingy colour scheme in much the same way as Joy tries to overrule the misery of her life. It is assisted by Stephen Rennicks’s score, at its most effective when it goes for a skeletal piano motif rather than all-out orchestral attack.

This is a Room of two halves, though I will not reveal the circumstances by which it shifts to the outside world here, for fear of extinguishing the sort of primal horror associated with the forest sequence in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But once they are reinstated with their family, life becomes more complicated for Joy and Jack, and no less confined. There are competing claims of blame and victimhood – Joy’s mother (Joan Allen) wants her own suffering acknowledged, while Joy suggests she might never have been kidnapped in the first place if she had not been raised to be compliant. The media descend on the household. An insensitive interviewer casts aspersions on the quality of Joy’s parenting. Jack starts to miss “Room”. So, in truth, do we.

The ironic contrast between the simplicity of “Room” and the coldness of life beyond it, where the camera is more inflexible and the locations antiseptic, can feel rather tidy. The film’s problem, however, lies in its efforts to convert the story into a metaphor for something larger. Abrahamson and Donoghue try to make the transition from captivity to freedom a commentary on what every child goes through on leaving the smothering warmth of the maternal embrace. Yet the story elements here are too specific to become universal – this is a film about a kidnapped woman and the son she raises in captivity. It lunges towards grand statements, but it can’t free itself from those rudiments. It can never leave “Room”.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 14 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie