Director Kevin MacDonald returns to the world of fiction, after his well-received documentary Marley, with an adaptation of a hugely successful young adult novel. How I Live Now, based on the book by Meg Rosoff. It sees the filmmaker combine his documentary style (witnessed in Touching The Void) with his creative cinematic gaze (The Last King of Scotland), whilst it sees some extraordinary performances from an exceptional group of young actors and actresses.
The story finds young American girl Daisy, played by Saoirse Ronan (Byzantium, Hanna), who has been sent to her cousins’ home in the beautiful English countryside (though actually filmed in equally beautiful Wales, fact fans). Her real name is actually Elizabeth but chooses to name herself against her given title, in an act of rebellion that is typical of her spiky nature. Director Macdonald even refers to her character as a “difficult little cow,” though one would think “teenager” would suffice.
Daisy, whose mother was lost in childbirth, has a number of issues with life, her father and her own body – and she isn’t shy about expressing her contempt for the world and those who inhabit with mono-syllabic utterances. Her disconnection with the world is heightened by the wonderful soundscape throughout the film, using aural tactics to separate Daisy from others. The American is bombarded with her own thoughts, and those of others, very loudly, and to distraction.
It’s a frosty start with her extended family (who also deal with absent parenting issues) but the cousins soon bond in the idyllic colourfulness of Brackendale farm. The novel’s writer Meg Rosoff has herself described these moments in the book as “old fashioned” and even almost Enid Blyton-esque, and the author is spot on. There’s a warmth and engagement taking place not only between the characters but also between the audience and the screen. It reaches out and touches.
The energy of the farm and youngsters is reflected through the use of the frame and camera as the natural colour of the countryside is heightened whilst the use of handheld camera during these scenes extols the joie de vivre of the bubbly young gang.
And these heartfelt, saturated moments, which could easily have originated from the Seventies, come hot on the heels of some contemporary and grey scenes of airport security (as Daisy flies in to the UK from the States); hinting that the world inhabited here isn’t quite that of our own. But, perhaps, one twenty minutes into the future. We discover Paris has been bombed and terrorists run a real threat to the UK.
In fact, the threat is all too real as war does indeed break out. And this is the shocking turning point in the film as Daisy and her cousins as the feel the force, and the physical resonance, of a nuclear blast so many miles away in London. It’s a scene which is haunting and deeply original – and one which stands up with any in the genre of nuclear and apocalyptic war.
The rest of the film shifts in tone hugely with the camera work moving away from the lightness into firm darkness, with a number of incredibly suspenseful and horrific scenes; the teen romance/coming of age tale quickly turns into horror, and Macdonald delivers with style and thought. It gets bleak, and then it gets a bit bleaker. And then even more so. There’s twists and turns to come, with the suspense raised, as are the shocks (but we won’t spoil those for you).
There’s a remarkable soundscape at work here too, from the interior of Daisy’s thoughts to the exterior of the brutality the children find themselves submerged in. And it’s a cracking soundtrack too, veering from delicate and beautiful works from Fairport Convention and Nick Drake to the more modern sounds of Amanda Palmer.
But it’s the wonderful and talented, not to mention, young cast who deserve plaudits here. Saoirse Ronan carries the film throughout, which is no mean feat for the Irish actress (who was just 18 years old during filming). She has all the broodiness of the caustic Daisy, but has all skill to engage the audience into caring deeply for her by the time the story takes that dramatic turn. Ronan is almost superhero-like in stature as she fights off one threat after another – all in the name of love. Her co-stars are no slouches either with both Tom Holland (who put in such a remarkable turn in The Impossible) and television’s Peppa Pig, Harley Bird (well, the voice of), putting in performances that are honest, heartfelt and supremely touching.
Fans of the book will find much to enjoy here and the few changes there are, are merely superficial, retaining the flavour and remaining faithful to its spirit, capturing its ‘magic realism’ and not unlike perennial children’s favourite, Carrie’s War. It’s the ultimate teen rebellion movie, as the ‘kids’ rebel against everyone, from their parents, to the army and more else besides. Although potentially an anti-war story, or teen movie, or a horror film, or a disaster flick, and, most obviously, a love story, How I Live Now is most certainly an allegory for disaffected youth, and how parents (or the previous generation) make the mess in which they have to live/fix/deal with.
How I Live Now lingers in the mind, it continues asking questions on numerous levels and topics; from teen rebellion to the notion of the power of love to the fragility of our current western way of life. Kevin MacDonald has created a bold and beautiful yet deeply distressing piece of work, and certainly ranks as one of the most powerful British films of recent times.
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