Children of Men: a masterpiece that speaks of the reality of State power

When one watches the often horrifying, but entirely compelling film masterpiece that is Children of Men (2006) it’s easy to be left feeling hopeless about the future and to lose much faith in humanity – despite the ‘happy’ ending. But I suggest that hope for the future and a renewed faith in humanity is to be found in two things, not in the film, but about the film.

Firstly, that the writer of the novel of which the film is an adaptation, a 72-year-old British women who was a Conservative life peer of the House of Lords, was not so enchanted by the State, democracy and politics that she found inconceivable the emergence of a totalitarian State in England.

And, secondly, that the film received critical acclaim, was nominated for three Oscars and is considered one of the best of its decade. It fell just short of turning a profit at the box office, which is a shame, but the important thing is that some people believed it should be made, it got made and now it exists in the world.

I think it’s encouraging that such a damning depiction of the reality of State power in a period of crisis for humanity was conceived in the mind of a peer of the House of Lords, and also that it wasn’t rejected by the intellectuals of our age.

What the movie does a particularly great job of showing is how the State, as manifested in the decrees and actions of its leaders and its enforcement agents, ensures its own survival at the direct expense of the most vulnerable minority in any society – immigrants – and ultimately at the expense of society itself.

The film makes this seem as unsurprising as it should be. After all, the State is nothing more than a large group of people with the legal right to steal and kill. You can’t help but see this in the film. The police don’t protect; they pillage and torture. Politicians don’t solve social problems; they exploit people and creat new crises. The State doesn’t save society; it drains all the remaining life out of it and leaves it for dead.

When Theo, the main protagonist, visits his cousin, who is the ruler of all of England having abolished democracy when he came to power in the last general election, we gain insight into the ruler’s mindset. Theo points out to his cousin that soon there will be no one left to think his opulent surroundings, which include Michelangelo’s David, are beautiful. Theo asks his cousin with genuine astonishment how he copes with that thought. Smiling, his cousin replies “I just don’t think about.”

His answer implicitly reveals that this is also how he copes with the thought that his police state is enslaving refugees on mass, and torturing and killing those who resist. Thought and reason are superfluous when you have the insurmountable force of the State at your fingertips.

The greater the number of people in the world today who are able to conceive of a future, not improved or perfected by political power but crushed by it, the greater the chance we have of avoiding one as bleak as the one depicted in P. D. James’ novel. Movies like Children of Men help us clear our heads, even just momentarily, of the stupefying belief that State power and politics is the driving force behind peace, prosperity and progress.

Not to disparage or dismiss the power of the book, but in today’s world, movies have replaced books as the most important media for transferring memes – in this case the unmasked State with its teeth bared – to the minds of the masses.

Alfonso Cuarón’s quite brilliant film adaptation of Children of Men does humanity a great service indeed, whether he meant it to or not. Everyone should watch it.

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