Skip to main content

Come on, we need to get away from here.

How I Live Now
(2013)

(SPOILERS) There’s enough genuine grimness in How I Live Now to nominate it as the anti-Young Adult movie. It’s probably no coincidence this is the strongest aspect of the picture, an unvarnished take on (global) conflict and the collapse of society shorn of the cosy fantasy elements of most of its stable mates. Kevin Macdonald’s post-apocalyptic Britain at times conjures the spectre of a teen Children of Men, but that’s more for its iconography (a martial, desolate and dissolute landscape) than actual content.  During its best passages, How I Live Now holds the taut immediacy of plunging into a nightmare tomorrow, where everything familiar is thrown on its head.  And the murky background to events is somehow more believable than any detailed geopolitical account. But the attempts to blend this with a standard issue romance are less certain, feasible as a dream to hold onto through the dark times but less convincing when actualised.


This is Saoirse Ronan’s second recent attempt to anchor a Young Adult adaptation, and it’s considerably more effective than The Host. Notably, both aspire to depict the internal monologue of a young protagonist and here in particular How I Live Now is more successful. Partly because the voices are less crucial to the plot, but also because they aren’t nearly as silly. Daisy (Ronan) is a self-absorbed, uppity New Yorker sent to live on a farm with her English cousins Edmond (George MacKay), Isaac (Tom Holland) and Piper (Harley Bird). Afflicted by a chiding inner aspect mixing self-help instructions with vehement character assassination, Daisy’s temperament soon thaws when she and Edmond fall in love. But brewing in the background are international tensions and the threat of war. Soon after her aunt (Anna Chancellor) departs for an emergency conference there is a nuclear attack on London, and the cousins are cut off from the outside world. Their attempts to make a go of it alone are curtailed when soldiers detain, separate and evacuate them to different parts of the country. But Daisy hasn’t given up on reuniting with Edmond.


There are some whacking great gaps in the logic of How I Live Now, credited to three writers; Jeremy Brock (who also worked with Macdonald on The Last King of Scotland and The Eagle), Penelope Skinner, and Gilliam and Red Riding Trilogy writer Tony Grisoni. I’m presuming most of these pre-exist in Meg Rosoff’s novel. But one thing I really like about the construction is how oblique the circumstances of this brooding Third World War are. On that level, it echoes 1980s nuclear nightmare efforts where the reasons for the situation are less important than the situation itself. Still though, there has to be a gesture towards joined-upedness. Would a mother, no matter how vital the circumstances, leave her children unattended when the world is on the brink of darkness? Hers is a decision that introduces a brief idyll uninfluenced by adults; Enid Blyton with added lust and mushroom clouds. Such a mismatch means it’s only the naturalistic shooting style adopted by Macdonald and cinematographer Frank Lustig that holds the fort in grounding some of the more unlikely elements.


Most glaring of these is the terribly fortunate lack of radiation sickness. This is despite a cloud of nuclear ash raining on the young quartet and their consumption of poisoned food and water. The scene when the blast is heard, and then it begins to “snow”, might be the picture’s most powerful; the realisation that something terrible is happening amid a serene, pastoral setting. But at least a couple of these kids (at 16 or so, Daisy and Edmond are more age-appropriate than in the book) really should be old enough to have an inkling of the deadly effects of nuclear fall-out (who knows, perhaps it all became a bit boring post-‘80s and ignorance is bliss; yet Edmond knows enough to tell the younger ones to get inside). I won’t complain that the slow deterioration in health and faculties of When the Wind Blows is absent here, but it seems to me there’s some onus to follow through if you’re tackling weighty themes and subjects. From what we see here, you’d be forgiven for thinking Tepco commissioned How I Live Now; radiatioactivity is relatively benign and nothing to worry about at all, kids. If you don’t think about it too much, it will go away.


There are also other slightly anomalous events; does Daisy have a very important dad (we know little of him, except that the father-daughter relationship is fraught)? Why else would the man from the US Embassy show up with a plane ticket (if this is happening to all US expats, this guy will do an awful lot of driving)? Understandably, Macdonald chooses not to emphasise what appears to be a relationship between first cousins (apparently the director has said this is not the case, but there’s no evidence otherwise in the movie). I don’t think this plot is wholly successful, but it works in as much as it’s Daisy’s driving force; an ideal to be pursued, to keep her going. Ronan and Mackay give solid performances, although Edmond is as burdened with affectations as Daisy (he’s a sensitive soul, picking up on thought processes and talking to the animals, like a teenage Dr Doolittle). If their reuniting is a little schematic (Edmond is now emotionally and physically scarred and distant, Daisy has learnt the importance of devotion without expectation of reward), certain narrative choices have pushed the boundaries of our expectations sufficiently for there to be no guarantee of a happy ending.


This is a film where children are shot in the head and body-bagged amidst piles of decaying corpses. The countryside, once a haven of warmth and safety, becomes a constant source of danger and horror. Cadavers are strewn, rapists lurk at every turn and the only code is degeneracy and lawlessness. The towns are no safer, the target of pitched battles. Daisy may not be the most reassuring of parent-figures for poor Piper, but her fanciful goal keeps them going. Plus, the apparent selfishness of that motivation is somehow more believable than facing reality. Certainly more so than acting the feisty Ripley type. The scene where Daisy shoots two predators (one of whom is played by Ronan’s father) is much more powerful than the punch-pulling reluctant heroics of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.


It was inevitable that a wide audience wouldn’t see How I Live Now, but I suspect it has greater potential for cult movie afterlife than most of its peer group. The unpalatable subject matter could have been finessed a little (and by that I don’t mean sanitised), but Macdonald achieves something more powerful than mere verisimilitude; in spite of its flaws How I Live Now resonates.


***1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Just a little whiplash is all.

Duel (1971) (SPOILERS) I don’t know if it’s just me, but Spielberg’s ’70s efforts seem, perversely, much more mature, or “adult” at any rate, than his subsequent phase – from the mid-’80s onwards – of straining tremulously for critical acceptance. Perhaps because there’s less thrall to sentiment on display, or indulgence in character exploration that veered into unswerving melodrama. Duel , famously made for TV but more than good enough to garner a European cinema release the following year after the raves came flooding in, is the starkest, most undiluted example of the director as a purveyor of pure technical expertise, honed as it is to essentials in terms of narrative and plotting. Consequently, that’s both Duel ’s strength and weakness.

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

Ours is the richest banking house in Europe, and we’re still being kicked.

The House of Rothschild (1934) (SPOILERS) Fox’s Rothschild family propaganda pic does a pretty good job presenting the clan as poor, maligned, oppressed Jews who fought back in the only way available to them: making money, lots of lovely money! Indeed, it occurred to me watching The House of Rothschild , that for all its inclusion of a rotter of a Nazi stand-in (played by Boris Karloff), Hitler must have just loved the movie, as it’s essentially paying the family the compliment of being very very good at doing their very best to make money from everyone left, right and centre. It’s thus unsurprising to learn that a scene was used in the anti-Semitic (you might guess as much from the title) The Eternal Jew .

You are not brought upon this world to get it!

John Carpenter  Ranked For anyone’s formative film viewing experience during the 1980s, certain directors held undeniable, persuasive genre (SF/fantasy/horror genre) cachet. James Cameron. Ridley Scott ( when he was tackling genre). Joe Dante. David Cronenberg. John Carpenter. Thanks to Halloween , Carpenter’s name became synonymous with horror, but he made relatively few undiluted movies in that vein (the aforementioned, The Fog , Christine , Prince of Darkness (although it has an SF/fantasy streak), In the Mouth of Madness , The Ward ). Certainly, the pictures that cemented my appreciation for his work – Dark Star , The Thing – had only a foot or not at all in that mode.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Sleep well, my friend, and forget us. Tomorrow you will wake up a new man.

The Prisoner 13. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling We want information. In an effort to locate Professor Seltzman, a scientist who has perfected a means of transferring one person’s mind to another person’s body, Number Two has Number Six’s mind installed in the body of the Colonel (a loyal servant of the Powers that Be). Six was the last person to have contact with Seltzman and, if he is to stand any chance of being returned to his own body, he must find him (the Village possesses only the means to make the switch, they cannot reverse the process). Awaking in London, Six encounters old acquaintances including his fiancée and her father Sir Charles Portland (Six’s superior and shown in the teaser sequence fretting over how to find Seltzman). Six discovers Seltzman’s hideout by decoding a series of photographs, and sets off to find him in Austria. He achieves this, but both men are captured and returned to the Village. Restoring Six and the Colonel to their respective bodie

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.