I like going to see films for which I have precisely no expectations nor any idea even what they’re about except in the barest terms, so long as I can be confident they are crafted by good hands. In director Kevin Macdonald and, especially, star Saoirse Ronan, I have no qualms about the talent behind the film, and therefore the film was rather a delight, an almost bucolic story of young love set against the improbable backdrop (for its lush setting) of World War III.
In a week which sees the release in the UK of two quite different but both very Scottish films (Sunshine on Leith and Filth), How I Live Now stands out by seeming rather very English. Part of that is its setting in the English countryside, and the film has a real sense for the shambolic rural farmstead, with its cosy homeliness, which makes it all quite alien for newcomer Daisy, played by Saoirse Ronan as a brightly-clothed yet sullen Californian teenager. It takes her time to get used to this earthier, messier pastoral existence with its lack of internet connection replaced by walks in the woods and impromptu swimming trips in nearby ponds (rather than immaculately kept azure-blue pools). Director Macdonald and his cinematographer Franz Lustig linger over the autumnal colours and golden setting sun, interspersing extreme close-ups of faces and flora, glinting and shimmering attractively as a sort of natural analogue to the first blush of Daisy’s feelings towards her cousin Edmond (George MacKay). It’s clear that Daisy has never visited her English family before, and while it’s not evident why she’s come now, nevertheless she makes her displeasure known.
The backdrop to what one presumes is World War III (though perhaps it’s just a civil war) is very much that: a backdrop. The feelings between the lead characters is the thing, while the war is glimpsed only through the teenagers’ eyes, so we see hints of militaristic build-up around the airport when Daisy arrives, flashes of news reports hinting at major world events, and the only adult figure — Daisy’s aunt, a high-level civil servant — is only fleetingly seen and she disappears almost as soon as she shows up. For this is a film primarily constructed around the way its teenage protagonists relate to one another and the world. This means it never really becomes clear who the antagonists in the war are, though it would appear they are home-grown anti-government revolutionaries or anarchists. When Daisy is separated from the farm and her male cousins, this kicks off a process whereby she struggles to return to the farm and the comforts of home — and of course, the love of Edmond.
For me it’s the first half of the film, which details Daisy’s gradual adjustment to the English rural lifestyle, that is the film’s strongest. Her antagonistic relationship to her new setting is detailed rather acutely, and her cousins (particularly the middle brother Isaac) remain fairly chirpy in the face of this initial rejection of their lives. Once the war properly breaks out, we’re thrust into a world of internment camps and survivalist instict, in which Daisy gets to go all Hunger Games, by leading and protecting her youngest cousin Piper (Harley Bird) through a newly-threatening countryside. This leads to lessons and hard truths — not to mention a notable hardening of her emotions in the face of war’s brutality — but it’s never quite so boldly stated, and there remains plenty of subtlety in Ronan’s controlled performance. And although it is hinted that Edmond shares some deeper understanding with Daisy (his recognition of the noise she must tune out seems to hint at the densely overlapping sonic textures that occasionally flare up as she looks at herself in the mirror), it never overtly moves into the mystical or supernatural: this remains a world grounded in reality, unlike certain other teen-focused love stories of recent memory.
It seems that How I Live Now is destined to be underappreciated, for its charms are very much the unflashy ones of strong acting performances supporting complex characters in the absence of any big effects-driven momentum. I wonder too how it will play outside the UK, where the pastoral setting is a very specific and acutely-felt vision of England, supported by such artists as Fairport Convention and Nick Drake on the soundtrack. However, it deserves to be widely-known not just for its performances but for its narrow focus on just this core of young characters. It’s certainly one of the most appealing narratives of wartime dislocation I can remember.
Director Kevin Macdonald; Writers Tony Grisoni, Jeremy Brock and Penelope Skinner; Cinematographer Franz Lustig; Starring Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay, Harley Bird; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 5 October 2013.