- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 24, 2006

It’s comforting to learn that in the future — as ravaged by war and pollution as the world may be — we’ll still have Clive Owen.

The British actor passed on the opportunity to become the new James Bond, it seems, to appear in a pair of films this year from two directors for whom “auteur” (rather than filmmaker) seems to be the perfect word. They’ve repaid the favor by putting one of the most talented actors working today front and center in their respective films. Mr. Owen played a suave bank robber with a heart in Spike Lee’s “Inside Man.” Now he’s being tasked with saving the world in Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men.”

I, for one, can think of no man I’d rather have save my world. Mr. Owen is not just a pretty boy, after all — although it’s hard to take your eyes off his tousled chestnut hair, rugged face and piercing green eyes. No, it’s that rare combination of intelligence and sensuality that makes him utterly compelling no matter the role, whether it’s the writer turned “Croupier” in the 1998 film that made his career or the cynical bureaucrat of the future in “Children of Men.”

Oh, right, the future. As seen as by Mr. Cuaron (“Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), it’s a scary place. This dystopian science fiction piece takes place in London of 2027. No children have been born for 18 years. Humanity has all but lost hope.

“It’s very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices,” notes Miriam, a former midwife (played by Pam Ferris, the second half of British TV sleuths “Rosemary and Thyme”). War and global warming have made conditions in most of the world practically unlivable. But refugees aren’t welcome by Britain’s leaders, who rule the country like today’s border protection Minutemen with more resources.

As Mr. Owen’s Theo Faron remarks, it wouldn’t matter if scientists could figure out why women can no longer get pregnant: The world went to hell in a handbasket long before the infertility problem developed.

Mr. Owen may play a depressed alcoholic whose own tragedy here — his only child died young — threatens to overwhelm him. But he’s more at ease with the world on screen than that epitome of elegance, Cary Grant. He carries what eventually turns into a chase movie with aplomb.

The cynic is recruited by his ex-wife (“The Hours’ ” Julianne Moore) to embrace life once again. Her radical group has found a woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey, in only her second film) who is eight months pregnant. Theo is charged with getting her across the border to a shadowy group called the Human Project, which aims to unshackle humanity from its totalitarian bonds.

Yes, if you look carefully you’ll notice there are other people in this movie. Michael Caine, for example. He puts in star work for a supporting role as Theo’s hippie mentor, Jasper. And Miss Ashitey adds some much-needed humor to this dark piece as humanity’s unlikely savior: The promiscuous girl doesn’t even know the identity of her baby’s father.

Theo shows a different side of himself with his interactions with all of them. This is one of his meatiest roles since 2004’s “Closer.”

If you can take your eyes off Mr. Owen — and it’s hard to do — you’ll notice that Mr. Cuaron has paid much attention to the background. It at once predicts the future and reflects the past and present. This political film wants us to think about the direction in which our own world might be heading. Retro music like “Court of the Crimson King” and a nod to Pink Floyd with a pig in the sky makes this London recognizable.

“Children of Men” may be, on the surface, a sci-fi chase film. But its maker and star have bigger ambitions than that.

All I know is, if Clive Owen is there, sign me up for resistance duty.

***

TITLE: “Children of Men”

RATING: R (strong violence, language, some drug use and brief nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Screenplay by Mr. Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, based on the novel by P.D. James.

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes

WEB SITE: www.childrenofmen.net

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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