The case of Elisabeth Fritzl is truly bizarre. A 42-year-old Austrian woman tells the police in her town that she’d been held for over 24 years in the basement of her father’s house, while he continued the abuse that had started in her childhood. Over the course of her imprisonment, Elisabeth gave birth to seven children. Three were taken by her parents and reported as foundlings; one died at birth and was cremated on the property; three, astoundingly, were kept in captivity with their mother in a 55 square meter room — the size of a studio apartment — until they finally escaped in 2008.
It probably sounds familiar. Give a synopsis of Emma Donoghue’s novel — now adapted into the film Room, and directed by Frank‘s Lenny Abrahamson — and most people will say, “oh, like that story… when was that…” It’s got all the sex and human misery that make it perfect for a quick media circus, only to be rushed off the stage when the next spectacle comes along for the news machine to feed on. I’m almost surprised it wasn’t more than superficially adapted into a Law & Order: SVU episode.
But Donoghue came to the story wanting more than just to take her own bite of the apple. She strips the story down to its essentials: a woman, Joy (Brie Larson), is held in captivity by an abuser, “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers), during which time she has a son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), whom she raises in the reinforced, soundproofed shack in Nick’s backyard. And where the media would naturally gravitate to the woman — how awful must her life have been? — or her abuser — how could anyone be so depraved? — Donoghue focuses on the son.
What would the world be like to a child raised in that situation? What could a mother possibly tell her child as he comes into awareness, in any way that makes sense? She can’t tell him about the world, because that means telling him about the hideous thing that was done — that is still being done to them every moment — and she must protect this child, the only good thing in her life, from that harm, at least for a little while. And so she tells Jack that Room is all there is. His world is Room, occupied by Chair Number One, Chair Number Two, Bed, Wardrobe, Toilet, and so on. The places and people they see on TV aren’t actually real; they’re from the TV planets in Outer Space above Sky, which they can see through Skylight. Jack tells us all of this, in heartbreaking innocence.
About a week after Jack’s fifth birthday, Old Nick reveals that he’s behind on his mortgage after being laid off for six months. Joy realizes that Nick will probably kill her and Jack before leaving his house. After so long resigned to her fate, she comes up with a plan to break herself and her child out into The World.
But now the question is reversed: what will the real world look like to a child who was always told it doesn’t really exist? And what will the world be like for Joy, who was taken away for seven years? Her parents, Jack’s Grandma and Grandpa (Joan Allen, William H. Macy) divorced in their trauma. Jack and Joy move in with Grandma, but they both have a lot of healing to do. And, this being America, medical bills for that, which the news media are happy to help with if they can just get an interview and turn this tragedy into ratings.
Eight-year-old Tremblay offers a wonderfully nuanced performance for such a young actor, and his genuinely affectionate relationship with Larson radiates off the screen. But while we follow Jack’s perspective, it’s Larson’s movie as she undertakes her most harrowing role yet. It’s one thing to portray a character who must push through unimaginable trials to emerge on the other side, but another thing entirely to include more of that character’s bond of love with her child beyond the fierce instinct to protect them from harm. And then to pin the character between her own ordeals and that love, until she reaches her breaking point takes more talent yet.
Abrahamson will not be singled out for his direction here; as the old saw goes, “best” awards are better read as “most”, and he’s a wise enough director to get out of the way of his cast. But he’s also compassionate — as he was with Frank — to people on the margins, who are most easily exploited. Room could have been a psycho-thriller movie-of-the-week, pandering to our basest, voyeuristic desires. Abrahamson and Donoghue know better than that, and give us instead real nourishment.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.