April 14th 2014 06:42
Though it bears strong similarities to recent Australian film Tomorrow, When the War Began (2010), Kevin Macdonald’s How I Live Now segregates a small group of young characters in a tranquil setting on the verge of disruption. A sullen, recently arrived young American, Daisy (Saiorse Ronan), sent to live with her cousins by her single-parent father, becomes the main focus as she reluctantly forges connections with her younger relations, including reticent eldest son Eddie (George Mackay) and middle son Isaac (Tom Holland). However, indicators of a looming threat becomes real with a nuclear blast destroying London and leaving the group to their own devices in the deep English countryside. Bereft of the adult figureheads who might devise a strategy for survival, they must instinctively figure out how to push onwards.
Macdonald is a fine filmmaker and though his latest film is curiously underwhelming it does have two fine assets. Ronan, the chameleonic young Irish actress able to adopt a variety of accents with equal conviction, is the first and most important. Even with a chip on her shoulder, Daisy retains our interest, a fleetingly used voices-in-the-head device employed to great effect in illuminating her troubled mind and the guilt associated with the death of her mother upon giving birth to her. The second is a strong visual perception of the world. Unlike other doomsday scenarios, such as John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009) for example – perhaps the bleakest ever committed to film – How I Live Now uses the lush beauty and resplendent manifold colourations of the countryside to negate the implications of a nuclear attack and the shadow it casts over the narrative. A strong scene – though it’s the most obvious metaphor for a sensuous freedom about to curtailed – sees Eddie releasing the pet hawk he trains in the woods to the mercy of the gales; the pair watch on in amazement as it soars majestically, appropriately synching their initially frosty relationship at the same time.
In general terms, the plot is an undernourished one, boiling down to a placid love story between the initially cold, gradually defrosting Daisy and the less substantial Eddie who turns out to be a bit of a drip. They’re separated midway through the film as martial law is enacted, the girls sent to live in a communal home, whilst the young males are sequestered off-screen, horrible fates assumed for them all. Explicitness is withheld for the sake of propriety; don’t expect to see any gut-wrenching after effects or hideous examples of humanity reduced to its atavistic core here, as in Fernando Merelles’s Blindness (2008). This might have been a far more refreshing quality if the screenplay’s characterisations were strong enough to transcend the subject matter, elucidating their plight with some measure of profundity. Ronan’s strong work aside however, the drama feels meek and half-hearted, though not entirely uninteresting. Macdonald’s past work, both fiction – the best of which remains 2006’s The Last King of Scotland - and non-fiction, like 2003’s Touching the Void, has offered far more complexity however, and even if this aesthetically pleasing vision of post-nuclear separation based on Meg Rosoff’s novel is a mildly entertaining one, it’s not enough to save How I Live Now (2013) from holding its form in an anonymous middle ground.
How I Live Now is out on DVD and BluRay from Madman.