Film review: Room – home and hell

Tom Browne

The film adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s acclaimed 2010 novel comes alive brilliantly—and unexpectedly—on the big screen.

Emma Donoghue’s Booker-nominated novel Room caused a stir when it was first published in 2010.

This was mainly because it took as its inspiration the horrific case of Josef Fritzl, a 73-year-old Austrian who had imprisoned his daughter in the basement of his home for 24 years and repeatedly raped her, resulting in the birth of seven children.

As reimagined by Donoghue, the book is told from the perspective of five-year-old Jack, born and brought up by his mother Joy in a single room and unaware of any reality outside it.

As the book unfolds, we learn that Joy has been kidnapped and held captive for seven years by a man referred to as Old Nick, who has fathered Jack.

In an effort to protect her son from reality, Joy has created a fantasy world in which nothing exists outside their single room, but circumstances eventually force her to enlist Jack’s help in a plan of escape.
 

"Room has firmly staked out its territory in the run up to the awards season, and it’ll be a big surprise if it doesn’t come away with a decent share of silverware."
 

Although the story is an intriguing and gripping one, the novel’s literary pedigree doesn’t make it an obvious candidate for the cinema, and alarm bells are set ringing by the news that Donoghue wrote the screenplay herself (ignoring the old adage that writers should never adapt their own work).

So given all this, it’s a pleasure to report that the film version succeeds splendidly. That it does so is largely due to the sensitive handling of director Lenny Abrahamson (the man behind 2014’s marvellous Frank) and a pair of stunning performances from Brie Larson as Joy and newcomer Jacob Tremblay as Jack.

The confined setting of the first half—which recalls Hitchcock’s Rear Window—relies almost entirely on the central characters to generate understanding, sympathy and suspense, and both Larson and Tremblay rise to the occasion magnificently. Tremblay, in particular, is a real find.
 

Room film review


The movie really comes into its own in the second half, when Jack is finally exposed to the unpredictable realities of the outside world.

Donoghue knows well enough that the confined setting of the room, for all its horrors, is at least an environment Joy and Jack can rationalise and control. But the sensory overload that hits Jack, and the media frenzy that threatens to overwhelm Joy, are among the most disturbing and gripping moments of the film, and hold the viewer’s attention to the end.

There are occasional flaws: a voiceover from Jack in the first half betrays the novelistic origins of the screenplay, and could probably have been dispensed with. And William H Macy makes such a strong impression as Joy’s father in the second half that one wishes he could have been given more screen time—although this is partly compensated for by Joan Allen’s emotionally powerful turn as Robert’s estranged wife Nancy.

All in all, however, any quibbles one may have are minor. Room has firmly staked out its territory in the run-up to the awards season, and it’ll be a big surprise if it doesn’t come away with a decent share of silverware.

 

Room by Emma Donoghue is available in our online bookshop

 

Watch the trailer below: