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Film of the Week: How I Live Now

By Jonathan Romney on November 07, 2013 in Film Comment, Jonathan Romney's Film of the Week

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The first glimmer I ever had of what you might call Apocalyptic British Ruralism can be summed up in one word: Devizes. This is a market town in South West England, and I remember the word jumping out at me in my early teens from the pages of John Wyndham’s 1951 alien invasion novel The Day of the Triffids. I didn’t know much about Devizes, but it sounded like a rather quiet and humdrum place to figure in such a dramatic context, which meant that something drastic was surely at stake: an overturning of the sedate English regional order, with even such safe corners of the landscape touched by catastrophe.

How I Live Now Saorsie Ronan

In the American apocalyptic imagination, the very idea of the Great Outdoors is inherently fraught with peril, since urban writers and filmmakers seem naturally inclined to believe that inconceivable horror lurks beyond the city gates—as witness such recent screen fictions as The Walking Dead and The Road. The British imagination, conversely, still tends to picture the countryside as a stable, timeless haven, which is why British radio listeners still tune religiously to the BBC’s agricultural soap opera The Archers. So if the U.K.’s hedgerows start harboring violent forces, something really is out of kilter in the world.

The fictional vein of Apocalyptic British Ruralism has been mined potently in film and TV for many years—notably in the 1975 BBC TV series Survivors, in which a deadly virus kills millions and the living abandon the cities to subsist traditionally, but dangerously, in rough-hewn knitwear. More recently, perilous country settings were central to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. The latest addition to this strain is How I Live Now, which arguably delves into country matters more deeply than any precursor in cinema.

Directed by Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void, 03; The Last King of Scotland, 06), and written by Jeremy Brock, Penelope Skinner, and Tony Grisoni, How I Live Now is based on the best-selling 2004 young-adult novel by Meg Rosoff, about an American teenager who arrives in England just as a world war breaks out. Embittered, solitary, and anorexic (in the film, the latter condition is replaced with a more cinematic but not entirely convincing affliction of voices in her head), Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) has been sent by her recently remarried father to stay with cousins. Arriving at an airport patrolled by armed militia, she is collected by her 14-year-old cousin Isaac (Tom Holland), a bespectacled boffin of a squirt who drives her by Jeep to his crumbling home in the countryside.

How I Live Now

There Isaac introduces Daisy to his 8-year-old sister Piper (Harley Bird) and 17-year-old brother Eddie (George MacKay)—tough, brooding and just the lad to bring Daisy out of her shell. Initially, she protects herself with her headphones, shades, Manhattan cynicism, and the voices in her head, sniffily refusing to join in the bucolic fun had by these whimsical creatures of the soil, who seem to have walked out of Swallows and Amazons or some other antique children’s book.

But eventually she lets her guard down, warming to her cousins’ rarely seen mother, her Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor), who’s an international peace negotiator. Busy with the global crisis, Penn only shows herself relatively late, long enough to reassure Daisy that everything will work out fine. Then Penn leaves to go and negotiate abroad—and then another idyllic day is interrupted by a mighty boom miles away, and snow suddenly dropping from the skies.

As in Rosoff’s book, what’s conveyed brilliantly is the children’s sense of denial—the feeling that whatever’s going wrong is happening miles away—and that denial is depicted as something that comes naturally both to children and to the British in general. In a brief, balmy idyll, the cousins get to enjoy the adventure of strange new days, without adult interference; they all get to sleep in the barn with their dogs, while a new adult utopia opens up to Daisy and Eddie, who discover love and sex. The film, incidentally, skirts the book’s trickier passages, in which Daisy uneasily makes it clear that she’s enjoying underage sex with the younger Edmund; in fact, Eddie is played on screen by the manifestly older MacKay, 21, an actor currently shaping up strongly as a sardonic junior hunk in a Kevin McKidd vein.

How I Live Now

Then soldiers show up, and things get rough. The young people are separated, with the girls sent to a safe house where the radio plays endless Elgar, and where the atmosphere is distinctly grey, as if even daylight and air were subject to rationing. Daisy is put to work salvaging vegetables from moldering piles, and one day a boy is summarily shot in front of her.

In the book, as Daisy and Piper try to find their way back to the family home, Rosoff carefully doles out intimations of nastiness, to quietly grim effect. She doesn’t pull her punches, but she places the shocks sparingly among long passages in which Daisy and Piper navigate using country lore: the book could almost serve as a manual to rural orienteering.

The film is more obviously, and more harrowingly, a dark adventure story—to bracing effect. There’s a plane crash in the woods, with a body hanging in the trees, and the book’s intimations of the wartime peril of rape are treated more overtly. The film also goes rather further than Rosoff when Daisy discovers piled-up bodies scavenged by foxes, in a genuinely unsettling scene—because, flouting the usual reassurances of young people’s fiction, someone is found horribly dead that we really wish wasn’t.

How I Live Now

Like the book, Macdonald’s How I Live Now sets these horrors against the beauties of the natural world, which thrives regardless of human screw-ups. Both before and during the crisis, DP Franz Lustig produces gorgeous images of landscapes, light, foliage, and the occasional eerie wonder, such as snow melting on roses in rain. Here the film catches the dreamy ruralism—the evocation of fragile bucolic bliss—that has had a resurgence in recent British cinema, for example in Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love, Jane Campion’s Bright Star, and Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre (all, notably, by directors of non-British origin).

The family home perfectly evokes the defiant mess of certain British rural piles, which hint at a deep order that’s only accessible to its inhabitants. Lustig and production designer Jacqueline Abrahams brilliantly capture this milieu: the horrible yet somehow reassuring furniture and wallpaper, the thick brownish light that makes the house a sheltering cave—before the burned-out gray cave it will become.

Rosoff’s female survival story is a terrific vehicle for a tough, smart young actress like Saoirse Ronan. Her cold-eyed strangeness and talent for prickly detachment give the film a nicely acidic human focus, Daisy’s initial spikiness and barely hidden contempt for her cousins providing a canny dramatic substitute for the distinctive first-person voice of Rosoff’s book.

How I live Now

The film is vaguer than the book about the stakes of the war. Rosoff suggests that the conflict is worldwide, and that the U.K. has been overcome by the enemy’s luring its troops off to war elsewhere; references to suicide bombers also make the book readable as a response to 9/11 anxieties. In the film, however, we never quite understand the exact nature either of the war or of the enemy, there being no clear distinction between Us and Them in the omnipresent militia. This makes it much more like a civil-war drama, with echoes of the Bosnian conflict—and so all the more effective as an allegory of the internal conflict that rages in the adolescent psyche, and that has eventually to be resolved in growing up.

Macdonald’s film comes on like gangbusters, with thunderous rock over blood-red opening titles. But this misleads us about the thoughtfully disturbing film ahead. How I Live Now has lyricism, urgency, and intelligence, and if it doesn’t seem to want to set the world on fire, all the better; Macdonald tells the story with confidence and the essential modesty of a superior B-movie, with all the integrity and energy that implies. These qualities make it all the more involving—and, for my money, actually better than the book, which is no small feat.

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