In the last fortnight I’ve watched two films that didn’t leave me feeling very good. This is not to say they were not good films. They were brilliant in fact. Two of the best I have seen in a long time. Both left me feeling incredibly emotional, vulnerable, anxious and upset. Anxious about the world we live in and upset that real people are experiencing the trauma, not just fictional characters on a big screen.
When people asked my thoughts on the films afterwards I raved about the talent of the filmmaker in crafting the stories, the eye of the cinematographer in painting the picture, and the breathtaking performances by cast members who embody the characters on the page. But so often when the trauma that is depicted is brought up, the people I am interacting with want to back out of the conversation and I hear: “Why would I want to watch a film that makes me angry or sad about the world? I go to the cinema to enjoy myself not leave more depressed than I was when I walked in.”
These people have a point. More often that not, people go to the cinema with the desire to escape the realm they inhabit and become a part of something more colourful – much like Alice down the rabbit hole. People want to watch a fictitious tale where happy endings are inevitable. They can expect a lot of laughs; the guy getting the girl; the baddie being locked up, and justice prevailing. Whilst justice does prevail in the two films I am about to explore – Room and Spotlight – the immense horror depicted, and the relationship that has with the real world, can often override the elated feelings that justice can bring. At the end of the day – or the close of the film – just because someone is now in prison for the heinous crims, does not make their acts any less present in the memories of their victims.
Adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own novel of the same name, Room invited audiences into the lives of Ma (Brie Larson) and 5-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a mother and son who live in one room, which they call Room, after Ma was kidnapped by ‘Old Nick’ seven years earlier. We meet the two just days before their lives change dramatically, and young Jack learns that outside of Room there is so much more to explore. Through the lens of the five-year-old, audiences are given the age old new-kid-in-town-story: this time the new kid is Jack, and the town is the entire world, including every person and place within it.
Despite tackling an incredibly nightmarish topic (the abduction and repeated rape of a young woman), Room is particularly interesting because, as Donoghue noted during a panel Q&A at TIFF last year, it is not a story of hatred, or of hellish torture. Instead, it is a story of a 5-year-old boy who is always loved (“you never see anyone ever be mean to that child”) and is embarking on a whole range of new experiences. Because of Jack’s view on his life so far, audiences are almost convinced that the world of Room, is – to quote Ma – “a great place to live”.
Larson’s performance is moving, and the transparency with which she seems to connect with her character is refreshing but is still greatly overshadowed by that of nine-year-old Tremblay. As is the case for a large number of child actors, it is so common to witness on screen an actor playing a role, but Tremblay surpassed any presupposition in his portrayal. He wasn’t simply acting Jack, he was Jack, embodying the role with the balanced nuance of a Method actor who has perfected their craft over many decades. When I consider what would draw me to watch a film about such a dark reality, I find the answer lies in Jacob Tremblay. A talent so immense that you are enthralled by such viscerally altering storytelling, rather than repelled by it.
As far as adaptations go, Room is as faithful as they come. Donoghue’s attempt to transfer her transforming novel to the big screen is done with such tact and care that it is easy to forget there are two different forms of the story. This is aided by the earnest monologues offered by Tremblay that carry direct chunks of text from the novel onto the screen. The world created by director Lenny Abrahamson is a bold juxtaposition of the terrible conditions Ma has faced for the last seven years, and the inviting imaginative mind of a five-year-old. Shots constructed from the perspective of Jack, whether it be from his position in Wardrobe where he sleeps each night whilst Old Jack visits to abuse Ma, or during the heart-pounding scene where freedom comes within reach, audiences are engaged with Jack every step on his new disorienting journey.
Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight too is an adaptation of sorts. The story which tracks the real life investigation by The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team (an ensemble cast made up of Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery and Liev Schreiber) into the child abuse allegations against the Catholic Archdiocese. The film repeatedly reminds us that Boston’s most prominent religion is an institution whose relationship with the city far exceeds an alliance that simply blurs the line between Church and State. What once was a series of nearly 600 articles produced by the Spotlight team is now an Oscar nominated picture, and a deserving contender for the biggest award of the night.
Unlike the use of young Jack to show a unique point of view, and provide an interesting, less confronting angle to the story, Spotlight doesn’t offer such a filter. Audiences are receiving the information relating to the crimes as the real hard facts of the case. The abuse is detailed by the victims with their interviews with McAdams’ Sacha Pfeiffer and Ruffalo’s Michael Rezendes, so as not to “sanitize” the topic at hand. As Pfeiffer tells an abuse survivor, “language is very important” and “people need to know what actually happened” in order to be confronted of the horrors committed. These horrors are enough to leave the audience breathing heavy, struggling as they try and comprehend how anyone, let alone a priest, could betray the trust of their community by hurting the most innocent within it.
In a scene stealing moment, abuse survivor Phil Saviano (Neal Huff) is first introduced to the Spotlight team – and the audience – as he retells the terrors of his youth. At first Saviano appears so rehearsed with his speech, almost as if he is reading from a script, maybe one that is not actually of his own story. Yet, before you even let that doubt fully reach your mind, you too are begging the Spotlight team to take on the story following Saviano’s desperate plea and outright anger that his story is possibly yet again not going to be given the coverage it deserves. Audiences realise his story isn’t rehearsed so much as the words which make it up are ingrained in his memory. He has said it so many times.
Spotlight doesn’t require multiple viewings. Yes, its complex plot may be easier to understand a second time around, but no viewing will be quite as potent as a viewer’s first encounter with McCarthy’s efforts at eliciting discomfort by illuminating terrifying truths. A discomfort that is even more jarring given it derives from the idea that one of the oldest institutions of the Church is not the cathedral of comfort and beacon of sanctity it has always preached of itself. The film forces audiences to grapple with unpleasant and discomforting issues that are rooted in their own identities, their understandings of good and evil. It then takes one step further, and encourages an evaluation of the institutions that shaped these understandings.
Room bares many similarities to the infamous kidnapping case of Elisabeth Fritzl who was held prisoner by her father Josef for 24 years, and more recently the abductions by Ariel Castro, and yet it is still a work of fiction. Adults can easily discern fiction from reality and yet watching Room I found myself unable to separate Donoghue’s construction on screen to the cases I had heard in the news. In contrast, as I watched Spotlight I couldn’t quite comprehend how this had been able to happen. From this struggle, feelings of unease, anxiety and despair arise and I am forced to ask the question, “Why did I just watch that?”
So what is the purpose of cinema? I aver that it does so much more than provide us with an escape from the drudgery of our own lives. These films are not just stories of trauma, but also films about how the survivors overcome it and how sociocultural frameworks confront it. That is where my enjoyment from watching the pictures derives. Room and Spotlight are contemporary cinematic marvels which encourage audiences to embrace character studies examining how we handle unimaginable pressure. In return for audiences' investment, Abrahamson and McCarthy illuminate humanity's capacity to triumph, and more importantly, question everything.