Film review: How I Live Now
Adapted from a young adult novel and starring Saoirse Ronan, this is an unexpectedly powerful drama of English endurance, writes Donald Clarke
Film Title: How I Live Now
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, Anna Chancellor, George MacKay
Running Time: 101 min
The latest film from Kevin Macdonald has the look of a teen romance about it. Based on a taut, original novel by Meg Rosoff, How I Live Now follows Daisy, a grumpy American girl, as, after falling out with her parents, she travels to stay with cousins in a remote English farmhouse.
The story could easily have become weighted down with borderline-dangerous “young adult” tropes – Daisy has eating issues and can’t live without mobile coverage – but Rosoff adds sombre energies when the country becomes overrun by a deliberately ill-defined army of marauders. Daisy’s blossoming affair with her (ooer!) cousin Edmund is counterbalanced and accelerated by the threat of apocalypse.
Something interesting has happened in the drift from page to screen. The scriptwriters’ passion for a particular English pastoral Eden and for a school of post-war dystopian misery has elbowed the romance into the lush, damp undergrowth.
It would be wrong to say that the affair becomes irrelevant. Saoirse Ronan (characteristically composed as Daisy) and George MacKay (dreamily tweedy as Edmund) rub against each other sufficiently vigorously to generate a dangerous number of sparks. But this now looks like a film about nice England versus diseased England that just happens upon a passionate romance along the way. Atmosphere is all.
As Daisy is being driven from Heathrow to the implausibly lovely, nicely decayed country pile, the soundtrack happens upon Tam Lin by the mighty Fairport Convention. The sound will push all the right buttons for fans of that late-1960s Electric Eden (to reference the title of a recent book on English folk musics by Rob Young).
The first half of How I Live Now deals in images that could easily have been plucked from the sleeves of albums by Fairport, Nick Drake or anybody else produced by Joe Boyd in those years: low branches graze warm rivers, crumbing window frames open on to grassy hills. The film-makers do a smashing job of summoning up nostalgia for a largely imagined idyll.
The paradise is annihilated when a nuclear device is detonated in London. Working on a limited budget, Macdonald hints at the remote catastrophe by inviting feathery debris to fall like snow about the farmhouse. The bleak odyssey that follows suggests classic British post-apocalyptic TV such as Peter Watkins’s The War Game and Mick Jackson’s Threads. The authorities behave like thugs. The invading forces are equally appalling.
Best known for Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland, Macdonald here demonstrates a taste for sideways glances at English life that might have pleased his grandfather Emeric Pressberger. The Britain of John Keats (or Sandy Denny) suddenly gives way to the Britain of William Blake (or Black Sabbath). Then the nation sets about righting itself.
Neither Ronan nor Mackay can be blamed for the relative lethargy of the central romance. They are just a little overpowered by the surroundings. A singularly odd, consistently bewitching piece of work.