Adapting Room, her acclaimed 2010 novel, Irish-born Emma Donoghue has remarkably been able to keep her book’s point of view mostly intact. With few exceptions, her screenplay is seen through the eyes of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), an imaginative 5-year-old who could easily be mistaken for a girl with the long chestnut hair that hangs down his back. Jack acts as the novel’s narrator, and Donoghue was smart to recognize that her young protagonist’s nascent grasp of English wouldn’t work well in extended voiceover—especially in a medium that exceeds in showing rather than telling—but even so, she deploys it expertly.
Indeed, the first voice we hear is that of Jack, who opens director Lenny Abrahamson’s film with the words “Once upon a time…” But this is no fairy tale we’re about to witness; it’s more of a prolonged nightmare, one that began seven years earlier for Jack’s “Ma” (Brie Larson), who has nevertheless been able to raise a wonderful child in the most horrific of situations.
As in the novel, we enter this inseparable pair’s story on Jack’s 5th birthday. Although they don’t have much, Ma is determined that they make a cake together to celebrate the occasion. Jack, however, grows upset that it’s not a “real” birthday cake, since it’s not topped with candles. He lashes out, but his loving mother patiently embraces him, calming him as she pulls him close. But then, they’re forced to be close no matter what, given their living situation, which finds the two inhabiting a windowless, electronically locked 10-by-10-foot space. Other than a single lamp, there’s only a small skylight on the unreachable ceiling to provide a modicum of light. Unsurprisingly, they both suffer from a ghostlike pallor, with dark circles lining their eyes. Nevertheless, Jack has a genuine spark in his, which widen as he begins his daily ritual of wishing a “good morning” to every object in “Room,” as Ma has dubbed the only world Jack has ever known. Bounding from “Lamp” to “Sink,” “TV” to “Brush,” Jack shows an exuberance that contrasts with his mother’s resignation to her fate, just as Jack’s colorful drawings jump out against the filthy chipboard wall paneling.
As if this backyard shack—a tiny prison with little more than a mattress, a bathtub, a toilet and a sink—weren’t cramped enough, Ma is visited nightly by their captor, a man known only as Old Nick. The first time we see the bearded, disheveled man in out-of-style eyeglasses, he delivers their “Sunday treats” of clothing, food and household items—before he removes his pants and climbs on top of Ma, as Jack peers through the horizontal slats on the doors to “Wardrobe,” which serves as the boy’s makeshift bed and refuge when Old Nick pays his nocturnal visits. Jack, too young to realize what’s happening to his mom at the hands of the man we gradually realize is his father by blood only, tallies the man’s thrusts as though he’s counting sheep.
Ma doesn’t want Jack to know there’s an entire world beyond Room’s walls; to him, Room is the world. And as far as Jack knows, Old Nick might be about as “real” as Dora the Explorer on the television—until Jack’s curiosity gets the better of him and he comes face-to-face with the all-too-real demon in their dwelling.
As Ma tears her son away from Old Nick, the man becomes violently angry, ranting about how difficult it is for him to provide for them when he’s been laid off for six months, screaming that “there are no jobs!” So, it comes as little surprise when the electricity and heat cease working. With winter upon them, Ma knows something must be done.
Jack is rereading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when Ma decides to end the charade and tell the unbelieving boy about the larger world. “I wasn’t always in Room. I was a little girl named Joy—like Alice.” And Joy has had enough. She begins formulating a plan to free them from captivity, one that—if successful—will find Jack entering a rabbit hole that exits into reality, like an inverse of Alice’s Wonderland.
Dublin-born Abrahamson is an old hand at working within constraints, having confined Michael Fassbender in a massive papier-mâché mask that completely concealed the talented actor’s head as he portrayed the titular character of Frank, the director’s low-key film from last year. However, there’s no concealing the award-worthy performances of 9-year-old Tremblay, a relative newcomer, and the 26-year-old Larson, who impresses with every new project. Likewise, Joan Allen delivers some fine work in the latter part of the picture, but it’s the believable bond between the two leads and their wholly naturalistic performances that elevates the film past any narrative deficiencies into greatness.
Sure, Stephen Rennicks’ musical score may push a little too hard, and Abrahamson might not have found the most interesting visual dynamic for introducing the “outside side” of Room, as Jack perfectly articulates it. But these things have little effect on the cumulative power of the film, or the room you’ll need in your pockets for Kleenex.
Check out our interview with Emma Donoghue here!
Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers, Joan Allen, Tom McCamus, Cas Anvar, Amanda Brugel, Joe Pingue, Wendy Crewson, Jack Fulton and William H. Macy. Written by Emma Donoghue, based on her novel. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner and Kendall Square.