Emma Donoghue’s extraordinary 2010 novel is told entirely from the perspective of a young boy who has been kept prisoner his whole life inside a small room, along with his mother. This forced point of view works brilliantly on the page, but while it’s abandoned for this film adaptation none of the power of its story is lost, and the delicate handling of its harrowing subject matter is just as impressive. In fact, the focus is perhaps shifted more onto the mother, partly due to a completely brilliant performance from Brie Larson. Criminally ignored for her work on Short Term 12, this is the role that should catapult her career into the stratosphere – brutally honest and scaldingly emotional, she is the anchor that carries the weight of the whole film’s impact.

Donoghue’s restructuring of her own work is also hugely significant – the way she spends hardly any time at all on the villain of the piece is crucial. By making it resolutely not his story, she reduces his power and strengthens the two abuse survivors that the film is focused on. The deeply unpleasant subject matter is also commendably depicted – almost none of it is actually shown, because it doesn’t need to be. The lingering threat and horrific implications are effective enough. So what could have been a crass horror film, or a sordid true-crime genre piece, ends up avoiding this by focusing on the emotional and psychological state of the abuse survivors.

It’s a film about repercussions, rather than the lurid drama (although there is one heart-stopping set-piece) – half the running time is spent dealing with what happens after the sensational moments, the difficult and often messy process of rebuilding lives. As harrowing and difficult to watch as it may be, it’s essentially a story with a thrillingly hopeful sense of optimism. A feeling that miracles can still take place in the darkest of times. And a nakedly emotional tribute to the pure, viscerally beautiful bond of motherhood.

A film about abuse that quite rightly focuses on the survivors and almost ignores the abuser9
A textbook example of how to depict abuse without being exploitative or sensationalistic9
Brie Larson's raw, nakedly emotional performance10
Emma Donoghue's sensitive adaptation of her own work9
Managing to mount a convincing case for optimism in the face of true horror9
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
  • The named female characters talk to each other
  • They talk about something other than men
Bechdel Test Failures
  • n/a
9Overall Score

2 Responses

  1. Mike Linsey

    Great film. The kid actor wasn’t annoying either – set piece was handled perfectly. I haven’t read the book, went in expecting an escape story – this is so much more. Excellent review, thanks.

    • celluloidoptimist

      Cheers Mike – definitely check the book out if you get the chance, it’s a different experience and well worth it x


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