An often grippingly realized portrait of a not-so-futuristic Blighty, in which fascism and infertility have become uneasy bed partners, Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men" is a fine but flawed exercise in dystopia. Skedded for a fall rollout in Europe, but December release in the U.S., this looks likely to reap comfortable mid-range business.

An often grippingly realized portrait of a not-so-futuristic Blighty in which fascism and infertility have become uneasy bed partners, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” is a fine but flawed exercise in dystopia. Much more effective when it’s a down-and-dirty actioner than when trying to grapple with the multitude of personal and political issues raised, pic suffers from Clive Owen’s cold lead playing but gains some heart and soul from a kudosworthy, wonderfully eccentric perf by Michael Caine. Skedded for a fall rollout in Europe and a December release in the U.S., this film looks likely to reap comfortable mid-range business.

Set only 21 years in the future, in November 2027, pic — based on the 1993 novel by British writer P.D. James, better known for her murder mysteries — posits a world racked by infertility and social chaos in which terrorism is the norm. The U.K., however, is a relative haven of peace — “The world has collapsed; only Britain soldiers on,” trumpets Brit TV propaganda — and as a consequence, immigration is out of control.

Cuaron clearly got to know Blighty when shooting “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” He portrays a grungy, Orwellian country of perpetual security announcements, prowling armed police, garbage in the streets and illegal immigrants in cages — not so different from the U.K. today, and far more believable in every respect than in the feeble “V for Vendetta.”

Main difference from the present is that, due to a sudden outbreak of female infertility, there have been no births in the world since 2009.

In a surprising demo of what’s to come on the action front, the opening sequence sees activist-turned-bureaucrat Theo Faron (Owen) almost blown to pieces by a terrorist bomb in central London. Using that as an excuse to take time off from his boring ministry job, he travels out of town — in a riot-protected train — to visit his old friend, onetime political cartoonist Jasper (Caine), who grows his own pot in the forest in which he lives.

As soon as Theo gets back to London, he is kidnapped by the terrorist group Fishes, which campaigns for equal rights for all immigrants. Its leader turns out to be Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore), with whom Theo was a student activist 20 years ago and had a kid that died. She offers the broke and heavy-drinking Theo a sizable sum to get transit papers for an illegal refugee, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), whom they’re smuggling out of the country.

Before he knows it, Theo is on the run with Kee — from both the authorities and renegade members of Fish — as Kee turns out to be eight months pregnant with the first child on Earth in 18 years. It’s finally left to him to smuggle Kee to shadowy offshore organization the Human Project, a group of scientists dedicated to finding a cure for global infertility.

Scripters Cuaron and Timothy J. Sexton don’t seem very interested in filling in background. The outbreak of infertility is never explained, the Human Project remains extremely lacking in detail, and the global collapse of society is vaguely attributed to Islamic terrorism in newscasts caught. Indeed, why so many immigrants would seek out the neo-fascistic U.K. is never made clear.

On the personal side, Theo and Julian’s backstory emerges only gradually and doesn’t do much to warm up the rather icy chemistry between thesps Owen and Moore in their relatively few scenes together. In fact, it’s the promising young Ashitey (from “Shooting Dogs”) who effectively becomes pic’s femme lead, as the relationship between Theo and Kee blooms on the run.

Aside from the two sequences in which Theo visits Jasper, pic’s dialogue hardly grapples with any of the broader issues thrown up by the script. Caine’s beatific perf, in hippie spectacles and shoulder-length hair, is treasurable and provides the two shafts of sunlight in the otherwise gray and wintry movie.

Other cameos by well-known names are more hit and miss: Peter Mullan’s turn as a pragmatic security guard adds extra spice to the socko final reels, whereas Danny Huston’s, as a government minister, seems to have been imported from a different movie.

Pic more than delivers, however, on the action front — not in bang-for-your-buck spectacle but in the kind of gritty, doculike sequences that haul viewers out of their seats and alongside the main protags. Along with camera operator George Richmond, who shot the entire movie handheld in 16 weeks, Cuaron orchestrates several lengthy single takes that have a front-line feel.

These include an attack in a car (a single take that required a special rig for the camera to get inside and around the car) and the movie’s showpiece climax. Latter single take recalls “Full Metal Jacket” in its landscape and “Black Hawk Down” in its intensity.

Production and costume design have the utterly believable look of the near future: like the present day but with a few tweaks. And Cuaron’s decision not to shoot in widescreen actually accentuates the movie’s gritty power. U.K. locations are all well used, including some right in the heart of London.

Children of Men

Production

A Universal Pictures presentation of a Strike Entertainment production, in association with Hit & Run Prods., Ingenious Media Partners, Toho-Towa Co. Produced by Marc Abraham, Eric Newman, Hilary Shor, Tony Smith, Iain Smith. Executive producers, Thomas A. Bliss, Armyan Bernstein. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Screenplay, Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, based on the novel "The Children of Men" by P.D. James.

Crew

Camera (color), Emmanuel Lubezki; editors, Alex Rodriguez, Cuaron; associate editor, Emma Gaffney; music, various, including John Tavener's "Fragment of a Prayer"; production designers, Jim Clay, Geoffrey Kirkland; supervising art directors, Gary Freeman, Malcolm Middleton; costume designer, Jany Temime; makeup and hair designer, Graham Johnston; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS Digital), David Evans; second unit camera, Peter Hannan; visual effects coordinator, Paul Ladd; special effects producer, Lucy Killick; stunt coordinator, Steve Dent; assistant director, Terry Needham; casting, Lucinda Syson. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 3, 2006. Running time: 108 MIN.

With

Theo Faron - Clive Owen Julian Taylor - Julianne Moore Jasper - Michael Caine Luke - Chiwetel Ejiofor Patric - Charlie Hunnam Kee - Clare-Hope Ashitey Miriam - Pam Ferris Nigel - Danny Huston Syd - Peter Mullan Marichka - Oana Pellea Ian - Paul Sharma Tomasz - Jacek Koman

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