Review of the film adaptation of PD James’ dystopia.
Slouching Towards Bexhillem by Tom Jennings
This latest blockbuster from Mexican film-maker Cuarón paints an ominous picture of the near future, with a global virus having left humanity infertile. Bulldog Britain somehow soldiers on, demonising tidal waves of illegal immigrants escaping societal meltdown everywhere else, its increasingly totalitarian government trumping the public’s despair at impending extinction with internal terror and short-term ‘homeland security’ repression while benevolently distributing ‘Quietus’ self-euthanasia kits for those who don’t succumb to ‘day of judgement’ fundamentalism. As the upper classes numbly barricade themselves in to brazen out armageddon, a rag-tag resistance dodges the security forces around an exceedingly grubby and battered but recognisable London, in which death squads, random bombings and cages full of foreigners on their way to incarceration litter the rubbish-filled streets. So far, so tantalising.
Awoken from drunken disillusionment by reminders of personal tragedies past, Clive Owen’s cynical civil servant Theo then flip-flops around the Home Counties trying to save the world’s only pregnant woman, fetching up in Bexhill-on-Sea rendered as a monstrous concentration/refugee camp. Their flight is captured in superb action sequences with bravura handheld single-takes, modulated with sentimental moments of stillness amidst the bloodbath as the unexpected sight and sound of infancy resurrects human caring among military, rebels and bystanders alike. However, the narrative is far less daring than its filming. Whereas V For Vendetta scuppered every ounce of political nous in its literary source, crime writer P.D. James’ similarly dystopian novel had none to start with – the magnificent set design and cinematography here representing a journeyman director doing the stylistic best of a bad job in terms of depth.
So, opposition to the fascist state from the urban guerilla ‘Fishes’ (i.e. the symbol used by clandestine early Christians) signposts the messianic underbelly of moral politics. This rainbow coalition of former anti-war, civil rights and green activists is riven with ‘broad front’ contradictions – only demanding human rights for refugees; yet launching armed insurrection! Utterly lacking the sociopolitical underpinnings to wring interesting speculation from its pandemic/police state scenario, Children Of Men’s naff nativity parable crumbles into faith in scientific progress – the mythical ‘Human Project’ run by “the best brains in the world” on the good ship ‘Tomorrow’. Cuarón twists James’ high-church, high-Tory spiritual self-flagellation, echoing John Wyndham or J.G. Ballard’s bleakly bilious postwar UK sci-fi critiques of bourgeois anomie. The redemptive convergence of rationalist wishful-thinking with pseudo-religious ethical superiority, promising salvation from the jackboot, is instead its shoehorn – with the blind liberal management of capitalism actively fostering disaster. Theo’s death delivering (Black refugee) madonna and (female) child to safety then merely finesses the conclusion that middle-class heroism (physical or philosophical) – like this film – can suggest no solutions.
Film review published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 23, December 2006.
For more reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: