Curriculum links: This case study can be used for those studying ‘Content of Critical Approaches to Film - Component 1: Film History - Section C: Ideology’ on the OCR AS-level specification’.
Lenny Abrahamson’s Room introduces a world within four walls where five-year-old Jack lives with his mother Joy. Born in captivity, Jack is under the blissful illusion that only that within the confines of “Room” is real; a fiction that his mother created to shield her son from the knowledge that his biological father - a man they call ‘Old Nick’ - abducted her seven years before. The film later tracks Jack and Joy’s carefully orchestrated escape from their small shed-like enclosure, leading to the boy’s discovery of the outside world and his mother’s subsequent struggle to adjust to life after her abduction.
Room was submitted to the BBFC for theatrical release in November 2015 and was classified at 15, with the content advice of ‘strong language, abduction theme’.
Written by Emma Donoghue and adapted from her best-selling novel of the same name, the first part of the film explores the extraordinary everyday life of mother and son through an intimate lens, which is punctured by several visits from Old Nick. The film’s central themes of abduction, abuse and trauma are brought into sharp focus in these moments. During one of these encounters things become fraught when Jack is caught out of bed and standing over Old Nick while he sleeps. The man wakes and talks to Jack, which immediately alerts Joy, who in an attempt to protect her son, lunges at Old Nick. Joy pays the price and feels the full weight of her captor as he gets on top of her, forcing her face into the pillow, choking her. Such moments of violent threat are often accompanied by verbal warnings from Old Nick, spelling out what he will do to mother and son if they are insubordinate. The repetition of these distressing scenes create an intense watch and in a context where these kinds of traumatic events might feel closer to real life, the issue of abduction is best placed at 15.
During our 2018 Guidelines research, we asked the public about the representation of other real-world issues, such as sexual violence and sexual threat. We found that people wanted us to classify certain depictions of rape in particular more restrictively. Our Guidelines were adjusted accordingly and at 15 they state that,
‘There may be strong verbal references to sexual violence but any depiction of the stronger forms of sexual violence, including rape, must not be detailed or prolonged. A strong and sustained focus on sexual threat is unacceptable.’
Scenes of sexual violence in Room are discreetly conveyed, showing Old Nick undressing, followed by muffled sounds, working to imply that Joy is forced to engage in sexual activity with her captor. However, often seen through point-of-view shots behind the wardrobe door, we are encouraged to see through Jack’s tentative but inquisitive eyes, what is happening to his mother. Putting ourselves in the young boy’s shoes, arguably makes these sequences feel more immediate and frightening. Given our awareness of public concern over these issues, had Room been submitted for classification today, our content advice would certainly reflect sexual violence more specifically. An extension of our content advice, available on our website and app, takes sexual violence into account and explains the extent to which this issue is presented in the film.
Similarly, suicide is represented as a significant - potentially triggering - issue in our extended content advice, although its depiction would have been acceptable at 12A. The second half of the film is about how mother and son adjust to life outside of Room and it soon becomes apparent that Joy is struggling with her mental health. She appears withdrawn, frustrated and angry, which eventually culminates in an attempt to take her own life. Jack finds his mother on the bathroom floor during the night, apparently having taken an overdose of prescription medication. Although this scene is upsetting, particularly as it focuses on the sheer terror Jack experiences as he sees his mother in trouble, the visual detail afforded to Joy’s condition is limited; directing our attention to the immediate action taken by Jack’s grandparents.
Other classification issues in the film include several uses of strong language (‘f**k’), exceeding what is permissible at 12A and therefore a contributing factor to the 15 rating. This is accompanied by other moderate (‘bitch’) and milder terms (‘shit’, ‘Jesus’, ‘God’ and ‘butt’). We flagged strong language accordingly in our content advice.
Room also contains a discreet verbal reference to drugs, which would have been permissible at a lower category, as would the brief sight of a bloody tooth.
- Room is rated 15 for ‘strong language, abduction theme’. Do you agree with the rating? If not, what would you rate it and why?
- The film deals with a very challenging subject. How would you describe the tone of the film? Does the film mix tones and moods?
- How does the film juxtapose the inside world of Room, with the real outside world? In what ways do these worlds come into conflict, particularly after Joy and Jack escape?
- What ideas do you think the film is trying to convey about family and home?
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