When I moved to Washington, DC, I started to sincerely fear a nuclear explosion. I was living on the Virginia side and formulated a simple escape plan: head westward as far and as fast as possible. Then I moved to New York City and the fear has, if anything, escalated to an ever-present expectation. Living anywhere in the five boroughs makes escape a serious practical difficulty. That’s even accepting that I survive the immediate blast. This is the kind of thinking I brought in with me to Kevin Macdonald‘s jet-black bleak tale How I Live Now (2013) in which Europe is coming apart at the seams and then, finally, bursts apart when a nuclear explosion destroys London.
Daisy (Saoirse Ronan), formerly “Elizabeth”, arrives in England full of punk rock anger. Her fourteen year old cousin–or half-ish cousin, the consanguinity is confused–Isaac (Tom Holland) picks her up and drives her to the family cottage in the country. The mother, Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor), is like a benign Mrs. Jellyby, completely engrossed in her work as a terrorism expert trying to defuse what looks to be the beginning of World War III. She must have done a pretty good job with her children because Isaac, the young daughter Piper (Harley Bird), and the eldest boy Eddie (George MacKay) are incredibly resourceful and tight-knit. Daisy, however, is a girl in her late teens and one of the fiercest of her species. She’s got some problems with her father and a full bevy of psychological hang-ups. Then London explodes and the kids are all alone in the countryside as Penn had flown off to Geneva to negotiate a cease fire the day before. Being young and independent, they’re willing to ride things out at home and not give in to martial law evacuations. Then things get pretty bleak.
If you’re waiting for the story to get nicer, then you’re going to have to wait for the sequel. How I Live Now, based on the novel by Meg Rosoff and adapted by Jeremy Brock, Tony Grisoni, and Penelope Skinner, is incredibly depressing. Not in the “Oh look, the last rose of summer has died” kind of way but in the “Mummy’s not coming back home is she because the insurgents executed her in the village square” kind of way. Although I haven’t seen or read The Road (2009), I’m going to have to seriously reconsider whether I can handle it.
People throw the word “harrowing” around quite a bit. It generally describes films that make one gasp at the brutality of it. I think that undersells the capacity of the word. I find a harrowing film to be one that I respect only because it hurts like a break-up. Capturing that feeling is an accomplishment worthy of note. Because what strikes me the most about How I Live Now is the painful reality of it. The fact that when the balloon goes up and we all hide under our desks, we’re almost better off being in the blast because putting the pieces back together is going to be nearly impossible.
That makes you wonder about those places for which this kind of daily terror is the norm. If not Syria, consider the “Greatest Generation” and what they went through in World War II. Looking back we can smile at ration books and shake our heads at the blitz, but consider the French and Germans that experienced fire bombings and the fact that some had to fear that any day might bring destruction for reasons of which they are only dimly aware. The characters in How I Live Now–and us with them–are completely ignorant of what’s going on or why. It was incredibly frustrating to see how disinterested Daisy was in the political event of the day. “Ask somebody what’s going on! Who’s attacking us?” You never know the answer to that question.
In a way that matters just as little as it does in The Counselor (2013). What difference does it make who is doing it or why, but that they are doing it and it has turned “society” inside out. So it touched me in exactly the same way as The Counselor did–that is, I was in fear for my own life for hours afterwards (my review). Right up until the final moments of the film, I was waiting for the big con to be revealed. British film and television has something of a history with the manipulations of government through the media. They think that because there are CCTV cameras that it’s just one false step to the police state. So, when someone says that “they” are poisoning the water and you have to use these water tablets to purify it, I thought “Oh, I see, this is a coup and they’re scaring the population into subservience.” Not the case, I think. Though when the military starts treating people quite brusquely, it does stretch my own sense of how the British military would treat their own people. Really, the movie is centrally concerned with Daisy and her friends going through the danse macabre for us to look in the mirror and decide what’s important.
This isn’t a crowd pleaser. You might already be convinced of that, but I haven’t told the half of it. The half of it is just how terrible and unlikeable Daisy is. The only reasons to care about Daisy are that (a) she’s the main character so that’s where we’re sitting and (b) because Piper is adorable and, all else being equal, she’s better off with Daisy holding her hand. That’s what makes the film so real and so upsetting because there’s no release valve in taking joy in Daisy’s successes. First because there are none and second because her goals (getting back to the house to be with her boyfriend) are rather petty. If, as one might expect of the YA area code of the subject matter, this film is trying to appeal to the Twilight audience or those who misread The Hunger Games and engaged with the story on the strength of the young people’s love, then it was a disaster. How I Live Now is like Mockingjay if Katniss were selfish and had no skills whatsoever. This cannot possibly have been the case.
First of all, Ronan is very effective as the hateful young girl and the other characters have some little quirk of unpleasantness to them. Without her, these things would go unnoticed, and their lovely Britishness would seem care-free and pure. With her, and her sterilized persona, Isaac seems like the kind of boy who might pull the wings off of flies and Eddie might be a poet of the opium-taking variety. So they are never her foil. Second the direction and cinematography (Franz Lustig) is very close with solar flares at every turn. It’s beautiful and, thus, cannot be for adolescent consumption as devised by a cynical studio executive. The pacing and the brutality of this film could never be confused with the kind of film that would inspire “Oh my God, I am just like Daisy”. Believe me.
I think an adolescent absolutely should see this film both to connect with it and to be challenged by it. I can think of no other film that would speak to that age group as honestly as this one does. There are elements of hubris and selfishness that an adult sees in teenagers but also of their purity of spirit that, when seen in the shadow of the destruction wrought by these adults, is perhaps worthy as much of our high regard as our hand-wringing.
I hate the poster. I absolutely hate it. What does this have to do with the film? It’s like they didn’t even see it.
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