Children of Men is a bravura film with a scarily predictive depiction of a collapsing world, a great cast and a thoughtful story. These things all get overshadowed by its technical accomplishments.
That’s the closest thing to a pejorative statement you’ll see about the movie in this space, and in this instance it’s not much of a slam. The technical gifts of Alfonso Cuarón’s bleak film could overshadow the strongest of scripts and the fact the script here isn’t too shabby adds to Children of Men’s towering status. But the pillars of its reputation are the film’s handful of long takes. The seemingly unbroken shots took advantage of new digital technology filmmaking tools and demonstrated how they could, and would, add a new set of options for films and eventually television.
The trick got repeated (as in an unnecessary doozy in Atonement in 2007) and then overdone (an unbroken tour of the future in 2015’s Tomorrowland went mostly ignored) and stretched to its breaking point when 2015’s Birdman and 2019’s 1917 both won Oscars for their cinematographers with shots spanning well over an hour. Elaborate long takes have been derided as gimmicky or praised as immersive. Neither designation is inherently wrong – nor mutually exclusive.
The patron saint of long-take criticism is the always eloquent critic Mike D’Angelo, who won this status with an argument for the inherent inferiority of scenes without cuts using the famous car ambush of Children of Men as exhibit A. Proponents of the “oner,” he observes “perceive every cut as a little lie, and have the notion that not cutting somehow more closely represents the way we actually see the world. But our visual field does not operate like a Steadicam…. Between blinks and saccades, we exist in a world where unconsciously interrupted vision is the norm. Hence there’s no real justification for these ever-more-strenuous attempts to create an ostensibly unbroken chunk of ‘real time,’ unless your primary goal is to wow the viewer with the sheer awesomeness of your technique.”
D’Angelo is 100% right in rebuttal to the idea that unbroken takes better mimic everyday perception and 100% wrong when he applies it as evidence in a case against Children of Men. He’s right that a showy shot can pull the viewer out of the story just as often, make them stand to the side in appreciation instead of staying in the magic of the moment. He’s also correct when he asserts that everything contained within a single take could be accomplished in traditional editing between setups. But this ignores what Children of Men accomplishes in its long takes, which is to restrict the possibilities for framing and choreography and wed these limitations to the tension in the scenes.
The infamous attack on the car begins innocuously enough. The central five characters drive toward a rendezvous point. We’re familiar with them already, and the playful dialog reinforces their relationships. It also gets us comfortable with the long take, demonstrating that the camera can move around the interior of the vehicle to a new chosen angle, but suggests even an understandable cutaway – a wide establishing shot from outside the vehicle, for example – will not be a part of the vocabulary. Even so, the camera isn’t tied to any particular point of view. This is not a first-person shot and it lacks the signifiers of a fly-on-the-wall documentary as long-takes are erroneously often said to have when successful.
Other than the squirms of the characters, the camera tracks two motions – the car the characters are riding in (via the landscape outside the window) and soon a ping-pong ball that Theo (Clive Owen) and Julian (Julianne Moore) spit back and forth. Both the car and the ball are objects familiar to the audience and we understand the physics at play here. A car’s motion is difficult to change, the ping pong ball’s difficult to control. Like Theo and Julian’s lighthearted demonstration, this is all a party trick to this point. But once we spy a flaming car rolling toward the path of vehicle, the internalized motion makes the tension immediately understood – are we travelling fast enough to miss the obstacle?
They won’t make it, and the driver Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hits the brakes. The car’s windows – previously an indicator of the forward movement – now show dozens of enemies streaming down the hillsides to attack the car. Luke reverses the vehicle, and the camera, without the freedom to cut to setups wherever it pleases, shares a position with the characters as a sitting duck when bricks, bats, a motorcycle and a fateful bullet strike the car.
The car turns so it can move forward again now in the other direction – easy to miss behind the shattering windshield – and the scene hangs for a long time on Miriam (Pam Ferris) and Theo tending to an unresponsive Julian. She’s dead. The camera moves over the reactions of Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) and Luke, then pivots back to introduce the next problem – police vehicles driving the opposite way. More tension as we hold on a view past the characters looking out the back windshield – if one of those cops comes back after them, they’re screwed. As with the earlier attack, the framing is precise so that we get information at the same time as the characters.
The car ambush is when the film reveals itself as unprecedented, the most striking of several scenes and shots in Children of Men that withhold cuts for longer than expected. Three later long takes involve foot chases through the dilapidated slums of a coastal city. These sorts of follow-me scenes can resemble videogames, another often disparaged mode for a movie, but video games – good ones – can be a very visceral experience and their language can be harnessed for effective filmmaking. Of course, resemblance to a video game does not guarantee a successful long take, and vice-versa. It can also bestow the sense of invulnerability of a video game character and poison the tension (e.g. the unreal situations of 1917, or even arguably the free-floating astronauts of Cuarón’s later experiments in Gravity).
The imminent threat of death of the main character is almost always an illusion anyway. Stories necessarily need to protect their main character, at least until a satisfying conclusion to the story has been reached, and when we respond to the danger in an action scene we’re really responding to the filmmaking in some way, and few things provoke a more satisfying response than choreography. Every obstacle in Theo’s way during these long takes – an enemy in the sightline or chickens on the stairs – is a threat to the choreography. The fact that some or many of these elements are digitally inserted, or that many of the shots are stitched together from shorter shots, is as immaterial as the knowledge that none of the guns contain real bullets. When a bounty hunter reloads his gun while at the other end of a hallway the characters try to shove open a stuck door, everybody’s business has to work in tandem. There’s a sense that if the bounty hunter finishes his task first (his progress is mostly tracked through sound effects), he’ll have no choice but to shoot them and end the movie.
Action often gets compared to dance, as in the balletic skills of Jackie Chan or the carefully coordinated moves of John Wick. Music numbers can lean on cuts to keep rhythm, but there’s also something breathtaking in holding on a shot and letting the choreography play out uninterrupted, knowing that at least once it was all pulled off just so. Appropriately for a movie where the main character never touches a gun, Children of Men knows the thrills of action don’t come from the moment the trigger gets pulled, but from the beauty in the motion around it.