A movie I have been eager to see opened today. I've just come home from a matinee, and I must say, The City of Ember is not to be missed. Based on the book by Jeanne DuPrau, it tells the beautiful and riveting story of a city that has existed underground for 200 years.
The inhabitants have no idea that there is anything outside the circle of electric light that surrounds their city. But time is running out. Their generators are failing and nobody knows how to fix them. Replacement parts have long since run out. Supplies are getting low, and blight is killing an increasing portion of their crops. Yet no one believes there is any way to escape, or anywhere to escape to, since the instructions to exit the City of Ember have become lost through a twist of fate.
The turning point comes one Assignment Day, when kids of a certain age (say, 14) are assigned their careers by a blind drawing. A boy named Doon Harrow, who believes he can figure out how to fix the generators, draws the assignment of messenger. A girl named Lina Mayfleet, who loves to run and mix with people, gets assigned to the pipe works. So, on impulse, the two classmates swap assignments . . . and thus become the right people, at the right place and time, to unlock the secrets of Ember before it's too late.
The film is gorgeously produced and excellently cast. I think it tells its story very effectively, and a moving story it is. Playing the villain is funny-man Bill Murray - a choice you won't think of as "casting against type" once you see it. Toby Jones plays his seemingly mild-mannered assistant. Doon's father is played by Tim Robbins, and the old hand who shows Doon around the pipe works is Martin Landau. Liz Smith, who was the more senile of Charlie's two grannies in the late Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, appears as Lina's granny; after granny dies, the lady who takes Lina in is Mary Kay Place. Lina's friend who works in the greenhouses is Marianne Jean-Baptiste of TV's Without a Trace.
But the cast members I must particularly note are the exceptional young actors who played Doon and Lina. The latter is Saoirse Ronan, who at age 14 has already been nominated for an Oscar (for her role in Atonement). She is a sweet-looking, vivacious girl who can handle a range of emotions without looking like she's acting. I thought she was the perfect choice for Lina, and what's unexpected is that she acts on the level of the adult stars with whom she shared the screen. Beside her as Doon was young-looking-for-24 Harry Treadaway, who first appeared with his real-life twin Luke in 2005's Brothers of the Head (about a pair of conjoined twins who become rock stars). He played Doon with the correct mixture of brooding intensity and gentle innocence - which must have been a difficult balance to hold.
I see a bright future as lead actors for these two attractive and talented young professionals. And, if this film has anything like the success it deserves, I see them working together on the sequel, based on DuPrau's equally excellent book The People of Sparks.
IMAGES: Treadaway and Ronan as Doon and Lina; Murray as the mayor of Ember. I wish I could find more stills, or better ones. There simply aren't any out there! If this movie flops, it will certainly be because it hasn't gotten the publicity it deserves. That, and maybe because there's more too it than the all-sugar-and-air confections that pass for family fare these days.