Four walls, some furniture and utensils, a couple of self-constructed toys and a skylight. That’s the full extent of the world for Ma (Brie Larson) and five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay). The difference for Ma is it’s a prison, and for Jack it’s all he’s ever known. There were many ways an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2010 bestseller could have played out, most variations ending with a sickly sweet escape yarn or gruelling psychological thriller. That Room is neither is a marvel. Scratch that – Room is a marvel.
Perhaps because Donoghue is adapting her own work, the structure that might have been scoffed at by many a movie executive remains. It helps that director Lenny Abrahamson shared the same vision, one that sees the first half unfold in the shed they know as room, the second outside where Ma has to adjust after seven years of captivity, and Jack has to learn an entire way of life he didn’t even believe existed.
There are two things Room gets very right. The first is Jack. His incomprehension, or more accurately miscomprehension is ushered into the film with real care. A voiceover is occasionally deployed but not for lazy exposition. It reveals a little of his mind-set each time. He wants a dog and knows they don’t exist, he craves candles on a birthday cake and enjoys watching TV that is also fake. He drives his mother around the bend but they are all each other has. And quite frankly, Jack wouldn’t want it any other way.And that leads to the other big success. The central relationship between Ma and Jack is emotionally rich, complex and natural. There’s never a doubt that they aren’t the most important thing in the world to each other. Much of this comes in the small details. Early morning calisthenics or a bit of space-limited running show their bond just as much as Ma’s fierce reaction when Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) – the name they use for their attacker – comes near the boy. Every action in the room demonstrates how interwoven their lives are, making the attempt to escape all the more of a wrench, and the subsequent difficulty adjusting to their new surroundings so compelling.
What’s especially remarkable about the time spent locked in room is how easy it is to forget the limitations of their habitat. Abrahamson eschews showy camerawork allowing space for the story to breathe. Their faces fill the screen instead, making up for the absence all around. When there is no weather, no other people and no variation in the routine, all they have is each other. For long sections, that’s what Room gives us.The set-pieces are also handled well, especially the escape and a sickening media interview, and new characters in the shape of Ma’s mother (Joan Allen), father (William H. Macy) and step-father (Tom McCamus) are introduced carefully, matching the pace at which Jack adjusts to his altered reality. The second half suffers a little technically with too much slow-motion and a surfeit of camera angles mostly demonstrating the coverage achieved – not a problem inside room where it helps to build out the space – but other elements, particularly Stephen Rennicks’ score, add that extra gloss to carry it over the finish line.
There’s a lot to like in Room, and in Larson and Tremblay, two performances and a very special relationship to love. A good film becomes something more as a result.