The harsh beauty of the English countryside shines through in Kevin Macdonald's harrowing teen survival yarn.
Seldom has the verdant splendour of the English countryside, with its mussy verges, chilly waterways and mighty, swaying natural canopies, been captured with such love and precision as it has in director Kevin Macdonald’s haunting teenage doomsday parable, How I Live Now. Its commitment to a sub-theme of Englishness — vital to the grim machinations of the plot — is not merely an aesthetic necessity, but is channeled via the audio also, with cuts from Fairport Convention and Nick Drake gracing the soundtrack.
Yet it’s also a film that’s not just in thrall to the majesty of the landscape, but how that landscape has been captured on film in the past, how it has changed, and how it has remained. Even though it’s based on Meg Rosoff's 2004 YA novel of the same name, the roots of How I Live Now snake right back to such cautionary wartime British classics as Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale and Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well?
It references England’s quaint literary heritage with nods to Enid Blyton, while there’s also a hint of Peter Watkins’ notorious The War Game, his mock documentary from 1965 detailing the skin-melting aftermath of an A-bomb falling on Rochester. Here, a pouting indie waif, Daisy (Saoirse Ronan, a leading lady-in-waiting if ever there was one), has flown to England to hang with her cousins, clearly not aware that the country is on the cusp of annihilation.
In the strapping, worldly Eddie (George MacKay) — a chunky-knit deity with a pet hawk — she finds an angular paramour, but their intense, erotic romance is cut short when a mighty gust of wind disturbs their frolicking and is followed by an ashy nuclear snowfall. London is no more. Their pastoral idyll is snatched from them as gun-toting troops split them apart, the vital imperatives of warfare the excuse. With a final pained whimper, they promise to both return to their arcadian paradise at any cost.
With films such as The Eagle and Touching the Void to his name, Macdonald is a director of the Herzogian school, ascribing to the notion that despite its sublime beauty, the natural landscape can be often a cruel mistress. The second half of the film chronicles Daisy’s desperate attempts to reconnect with Eddie, her impetuous, ginger-barneted pre-teen cousin Piper (Harley Bird) an accomplice on the arduous hike.
It’s in this latter segment of the film where Macdonald presents the brutal realities of a military occupation and he pulls no punches in his depiction of ensuing horrors, both physical and psychological. That Daisy is an American (Ronan’s accent is faultless) only heightens the sense of displacement and dread, and even an apparent attempt at a happy ending is, in hindsight, nothing of the sort.
Though often remarkable for a garish commitment to its subject, the film is not perfect — it’s occasionally too schematic for its own good, and even though the material is unexpectedly (though commendably) extreme, it’s not difficult to pick out who’s going to snuff it next. Beyond the immediate dangers of our heroes, How I Live Now is a stridently anti-war movie, cleverly highlighting a range of abominations from torture through to tinned luncheon meat. It’s a love story, in many ways about a dreamed-up ménage à trois between Daisy, Eddie and England.
Read our interview with director Kevin MacDonald.
Buzz has been noticeably absent on this British war/romance/ horror hybrid.
Macdonald’s best film, about war, about teenagers, about England.
Haunting. Like a Hunger Games with genuine back-bone.