Room review – Brie Larson shines in a dark dungeon

A heartfelt, Golden Globe-winning performance powers this gripping drama about a mother and son imprisoned by a psychotic abuser

Claustrophobic horror gives way to muscle-clenching suspense in this film, and then to something else, to a subtle and unguessable third act. It is Emma Donoghue’s screen adaptation of her 2010 novel Room; the director is Lenny Abrahamson, who brings his expertise in the pathology of avoidance and shame.

A young woman (Brie Larson) has been kidnapped and imprisoned for years by a psychotic abuser; she and her young son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) are forced to live in a tiny room with rudimentary cooker, lavatory and washbasin, secured by a heavy steel door with an electronic key code. Every evening, the man (Sean Bridgers) comes in with supplies, and to rape the woman while Jack is curled up asleep in the wardrobe.

Room director Lenny Abrahamson: ‘I find kids’ optimism incredibly moving’ – video interview

This squalid cramped space is the only world Jack has ever known; he has evolved a magic/religious belief in how things arrive from the outside. He calls it “Room”, a word whose ironies gradually emerge, and for him it is a richly and reassuringly detailed universe, beyond which, through a skylight, he nonetheless glimpses a mysterious sky beyond. But, as Jack reaches his fifth birthday, the deceit and moment-by-moment nightmare of their situation become intolerable for his mother. She hatches a desperate plan to escape.

Larson gives a powerful performance, which has earned her a Golden Globe, with more prizes potentially on the way. She is very good at conveying the nauseous wretchedness of her life: the strain of concealing the truth from her son, or rather the strain of behaving as if the truth does not exist, since it would be impossible to explain. She preserves the macabre parody of his innocence in this satanic Eden, with no one else there except for an adult of whose love he is confident, and (periodically) another whose essential goodness as a provider he has no reason to doubt.

A glimpse of the mysterious sky beyond … Jacob Tremblay in Room
A glimpse of the mysterious sky beyond … Jacob Tremblay in Room Photograph: PR

Tremblay is very good, too, with Jack’s basic childlike serenity: he appears mostly happy and certainly does not understand what is happening at night when he is in the wardrobe or what his actual relationship with this man is. Or rather, he seems no more subject to sadness and fear than other children on the outside. With a child’s ability to accept everything, Jack is content with “Room”, as his total world; he accepts this as we accept our world. I found myself thinking of Hamlet’s remark about Denmark being a prison: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” You might find thoughts of The Truman Show flashing into your mind as Jack expresses his consent to everything he can see about him.

Room is of course inspired by two cases from Austria: Natascha Kampusch, who was abducted and imprisoned in 1998 at the age of 10, and the even more horrendous case of Elizabeth Fritzl, who in 2008 was revealed to have been kept captive and abused for 24 years in a basement of her father Josef’s house. It’s not a new subject in the cinema. Michael (2011) by the Austrian director Markus Schleinzer, showed some months in the life of a paedophile who keeps a child locked up in a dungeon. That’s a film which is more pitiless, more shocking and more despairing than Room, perhaps because it focuses more directly on the abuser.

This movie is set in the US and it does not have the same sort of brutal Euro-hardcore feel. Arguably, Schleinzer’s film is a truer representation of the subject. But that doesn’t mean Room is in some way evasive or emollient. Not at all. It keeps a clear, cold gaze on what is happening and shows that, just as this Room is a part of an unsuspected universe beyond, so the mother’s nightmarish existence is part of an extended, complex situation involving her mother (Joan Allen), her father (William H Macy) and her mother’s new boyfriend (Tom McCamus).

So are we all, adults and children, prisoners in rooms of various sizes and sorts? No: the film is not suggesting anything as glib. But it does show that the prisoner is burdened by the knowledge of an existence before imprisonment, a flawed, constrained existence that may in some sense have caused the current nightmare.

There are some plausibility issues in Room, but this is a disturbing and absorbing film, shrewdly acted, particularly by Larson. It lets the audience in; it does not just let the nightmare stun them into submission. You make a real emotional engagement.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Brie Larson wins best actress Oscar for Room
The actor’s first nomination has led to a win for her role in the harrowing drama

Benjamin Lee

29, Feb, 2016 @4:47 AM

Article image
The Hateful Eight; Room; A War; Welcome to Me; Janis: Little Girl Blue; Welcome to Leith – review
Quentin Tarantino’s western locks eight of the usual suspects in a cabin together, but none can match Brie Larson for captivating viewing

Guy Lodge

08, May, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Room author Emma Donoghue: ‘The situation is horrible, but the story is not’
Like the five-year-old hero of her 2010 novel, the Irish writer has been on a journey of change. Now, having turned her tale about an enslaved family into a film – released later this month – she plans to reinvent it for the stage

Xan Brooks

31, Dec, 2015 @12:00 PM

Article image
Brie Larson addresses Hollywood sexism following Oscar win
The best actress winner for Room spoke backstage at the Oscars about how a demeaning professional experience strengthened her confidence

Nigel M Smith in Los Angeles

29, Feb, 2016 @6:45 PM

Article image
Lenny Abrahamson: ‘It’s a way of talking about childhood and parenting’
As his film Room is released, the Irish director talks about wise children, fear of failure and his love of Laurel and Hardy

Jonathan Romney

10, Jan, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
Free Fire review – warehouse shootout is bang on target | Peter Bradshaw's film of the week
Ben Wheatley’s thriller about a protracted gun battle, starring Brie Larson and Cillian Murphy, has no plot – but it’s smart, stylish and dazzlingly put together

Peter Bradshaw

30, Mar, 2017 @2:00 PM

Room review: Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay escape confining adaptation
Director Lenny Abrahamson seems uncertain of how to translate Emma Donoghue’s novel to the big screen – but his cast appear more confident

Nigel M Smith

05, Sep, 2015 @6:58 AM

Article image
Room review – to see the world within four walls
Brie Larson is nothing short of perfect in this heartbreaking, life-affirming drama brilliantly directed by Lenny Abrahamson

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

17, Jan, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
Emma Donoghue on how she wrote the screenplay for Room
The author explains the challenges and rewards of adapting her bestselling novel for the big screen

Emma Donoghue

15, Jan, 2016 @4:20 PM

Article image
Captain Marvel review – Brie Larson kicks ass across the universe
Marvel’s superhero adventure veers from boomingly serious to quirkily droll as Larson wages a vicious war against evil aliens

Peter Bradshaw

05, Mar, 2019 @2:00 PM