Set in present day England, but on the cusp of World War III, the film begins with embittered and resentful american teenager, Daisy (Saoirse Ronan), stepping off a plane to join her English cousins for the summer. The country idyll and colourful freedom in which they dwell soon permeates and soothes her therapy-addled anxiety, a process helped along by the quiet attention and growing affection of her eldest cousin, Edmond (George Mackay). On sourcing the funding for the film, director Kevin Macdonald revealed that American money demanded this first cousin romance be made rather less familial, so remaining loyal to the book, finances were sought on British soil.
Macdonald admitted to being utterly enchanted by the book’s portrayal of the English countryside (although most of the filming was done in Wales), and in turn the cinematography purposely sets out to enchant the viewer. Vivid green countryside and scenes of unblemished, rolling hills, imbued with golden sunshine and the glad squeals of children left alone to wonder at creation all come to a sudden halt when the cold blast of a nuclear device hundreds of miles away is felt in the air, and the children are separated.
The use of contemporary music and sound was an unexpected delight. Highlights include a well-placed play of Daughter’s ‘Home’, which craftily enforces Daisy’s headstrong determination, and a Nick Drake song lends itself finely to a scene of pre-war revelry in the river. The latter, Macdonald later reveals, was one of two scenes already mapped out with song before filming. When the atmosphere of a scene falls heavy around, this strong use of song lifts it from dread and drives the journey on, gut-wrenched tighter than before.
What results is a courageously violent, folkloric-apocalypto-romance that stands apart from its contemporary young adult adaptation peers. It’s not just the graphic images, swearing and incestuous romance that detaches it from its wimpier little brothers (i.e. The Hunger Games, Twilight), but also the total lack of childish sheen, as demonstrated in the consistently strong performances from its four under-20-year-old leads. Ronan is headswervingly compelling, and the strong-jawed silence of Mackay anchors down the family ship of younger siblings Isaac (Tom Holland) and Piper (Harley Bird), enabling them to be endearing, hilarious and loveable. Thrown into an adults’ war that is at times truly frightening, this is a film about children and the universal human quest for love and home.
How I Live Now is on general release from 4th October.
Natasha Khan & Jon Hopkins wrote this song for the film, and directed the video, with Saoirse Ronan reprising her role.
(Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)