September 16, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Review: “Room”


Despite its compact scale, Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel ROOM was a daunting candidate for film adaptation, because so much of its impact depends on its very specific narrator’s voice, a 5-year old named Jack who has lived his entire life in the shed where his Ma (whose other name is Joy) was taken captive two years before he was born.  Jack’s whole world is in that shed, and he can’t distinguish between the fantasy life he sees on the room’s TV set and the idea of an existence outside the shed’s walls.  His relationship with Ma is, by necessity, all-encompassing, and he takes for granted awful facts of life like the nightly visits the man he knows as “old Nick” makes to Ma while he hides in the wardrobe.

Film is a more objective medium than literature, and some of the intimacy readers had with Jack as they read Room doesn’t translate to the screen.  But director Lenny Abrahamson (whose previous film was the oddball Frank) and Donoghue, who adapted her own book, have done a perceptive, intelligent job of retaining the qualities that made the novel memorable.  Abrahamson faced a formidable challenge in keeping the story’s (spoiler alert) first half confined to that tiny space, and with cinematographer Danny Cohen and editor Nathan Nugent, he’s managed to keep the action visually interesting through a varied shot seletion and smooth pacing.  (Cohen also photographed The Danish Girl at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, another film with a confined location, although compared to Room, Danish Girl is an epic.)  Later in the story, Abrahamson, Cohen and production designer Ethan Tobman skillfully suggest that there are forms of confinement for Jack and especially Ma even outside the walls of the shed, very much in keeping with the tone of Donoghue’s story.  There also a powerful contribution throughout from the score by Stephen Rennicks.

In the end, though, Room had to depend more than anything else on the performers who play Ma and Jack.  Brie Larson is spectacular in the lead, expressing complex mixtures of overwhelming love, angry frustration, and desperate sadness at once as she tries to raise a son in the most uniquely trying circumstances.  It would be an injustice if she were outpaced in this year’s awards race by performers who have bigger names and more experienced campaign teams.  (Room is being released by the relatively untried A24.)  As Jack, although it’s always difficult to gauge the work of a performer so young, since often the results aren’t a product of what adults call “acting,” Jacob Tremblay is utterly natural and believable, and however it was achieved, he gives a performance that journeys from a near-feral state to something very different.  Joan Allen and Tom McCamus are also strong in roles that come along later in the story.

Room is easier to watch than to read in some ways, as certain physical aspects of Ma and Jack’s captivity have been toned down for the screen, and Abrahamson proves surprisingly skillful at generating suspense and excitement in what amounts to the story’s one action scene, but it’s still not exactly a fun time at the movies.  Nevertheless, it’s a moving microcosm of the parent-child bond, and a model of the way difficult source material can be adapted to film.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."