The Josef Fritzl scandal that generated headlines across the world in 2008 was one of the more harrowing human interest stories of the 21st century, a stranger than fiction tale as depressing as it was surreal. Fritzl imprisoned his daughter for a quarter of a century, with the most disturbing details being given equal weight to the bizarre ones; to make the children who had never lived outside of the cellar have no desire to leave, he informed them (amongst other things) that McDonald’s fast food restaurant was “a myth”.
This strange manipulation of the truth in shielding his captors from the outside world fed in heavily to 2009 Greek oddity Dogtooth– the screenplay for that film was written before the scandal emerged, yet helped the film’s surreal black humour gain unexpected prescience upon release. The 2010 Booker-prize nominated novel Room was inspired by the Fritzl case, telling the story from the point of view of a mother and child, who was only born as a result of the imprisonment and now has been told lies so he doesn’t expect any world exists beyond the confines of the titular room.
The film adaptation of the novel is directed by Lenny Abrahamson, an Irish director whose films are often unclassifiable, due to how far they push a tragicomic sensibility into the realms of the indecipherable. His 2014 film Frank was an examination of tortured musical genius, starring Michael Fassbender in the title role, face covered by a papier mache head for the majority of the running time. For a director who hits emotional beats in unexpectedly touching ways, to see him tackle something as straightforward as an adaptation of a novel (one inspired by a harrowing true life story) is cause for concern. He’s dropped all quirks and softened the grit in his approach, making something occasionally traumatising, but far more palatable to the mainstream, human-interest story loving general public ready to shed a tear.
Brie Larson and newcomer Jacob Tremblay star in the dual lead roles of mother (here nicknamed Ma) and son respectively. The conceit is as simple as it is sad- the mother was kidnapped by a guy (whose real name is unknown, but is referred to as “Old Nick”) seven years prior and has spent the past five years raising a son in a room he believes represents the whole universe. After his fifth birthday, she decides enough is enough and helps to hatch a plan to escape the room and imprison her captor.
As with all of the director’s films, Room is a mishmash of different tones; what with the concrete emotional nature of the story, however, the lapses into broad comedy at times feel misjudged. The film is narrated by the son, Jack, in an irritatingly naive way that becomes grating quickly- as soon as you feel emotionally invested in the character’s discovery of a larger universe, you become annoyed at an irrelevant voice-over monologue that follows about how a toilet can “disappear poo”.
It makes sense to lighten the tone due to the nature of the subject matter, but Abrahamson’s usual naturalistic comic sensibility has been foregone in favour of something broader. The two elements couldn’t be more disparate, especially considering this is a film that doesn’t soften the blows of sequences involving (for example) sexual assault. Trying to make it more lighthearted frequently works against the film’s favour.
These sequences are almost all forgiven when played against the powerhouse central performance from Brie Larson. She plays the mother as exasperated, tired and annoyed of her son’s naivety, but manages to convey these feelings from a clear place of love. The second half of the film, in which she struggles to adapt back to the real world, she isn’t given anything as dramatically involving to do; her performance remains consistently good, but it is hard to truly pull-off the emotional truths of acting like an overgrown moody teenager.
At times, the film also comes across as too sentimental; Abrahamson occasionally undercuts the heartstring-pandering score, such as interrupting the emotional discovery of a mouse abruptly with an act of animal cruelty that almost registers as a jump-scare. Mostly, he fully gives in to sentimentality, with the constant clash of tones making sure it is never as emotionally involving as it should be. It is always dramatically engaging, but considering the subject matter, merely engaging with no deeper connection isn’t enough. Room is a solid piece of work, but one that feels indistinctive compared to the director’s earlier work, which managed to find the laughs in hard-to-stomach emotional truths comparably effortlessly.