Based on Meg Rosoff’s award-winning novel and directed by Kevin Macdonald, How I Live Now is a film set in rural England that opts for a (slightly) different take on blossoming love in times of war and peace, and one that I’ve been looking forward to watching since it came out on a limited release nearly two years ago. Saoirse Ronan stars as Daisy, a Californian teenager who arrives in England to stay with her aunt and three cousins in the English countryside … all swaying bushes, streaks of golden sunlight and cool, inviting streams. With her ripped tights, nonchalant dismissal of good-natured (if uncool) family members and a strong desire to be left alone she appears at first to be your classic rebel, but as with most classic rebels it’s all a front to mask personal problems and more: Daisy is neurotic and suffering from anorexia, while apparently also struggling to make sense of a troubled relationship with her father; it seems that he has sent her to England, from California, and she stares intently at her phone waiting for him to call. He never does.
Though initially Daisy gives her English family members the cold shoulder and struggles to relax in the large, cluttered farmhouse, gradually she warms to her new surroundings and begins to fall in love with resourceful and sympathetic 17-year-old Eddie (George MacKay). However there’s more to How I Live Now than a simple transatlantic love story: when Daisy arrives in England TV screens at Heathrow Airport reveal that terrorists have detonated a bomb in Paris, while heightened security sees the presence of armed soldiers standing guard. The countryside should offer a degree of safety, in theory, but Macdonald successfully creates the sense of a distant threat gradually coming closer, almost as if it is radiating outward from London. The idyllic calm is shattered when a nuclear bomb is detonated in the capital, killing hundreds of thousands off-screen, and the ensuing fallout eerily turns the farm and surrounding land ash grey. The only adult in the film, Daisy’s Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor) has left for a terrorism-related conference in Geneva, and so the kids are left to fend for themselves, without electricity and without much information as to what is going on. Fires can be seen in the distance and, before long, the Army arrives with force. It turns out that the country is at war – World War III, perhaps, although it’s not described as such and the enemy is never identified – and under martial law; gradually skies darken as brutal terrorist factions appear in the once-peaceful woods and narrow country lanes, bringing to mind both the greenbelt-centric threats of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men and its gloomy, England-in-the-rain colour palette (while shots of deserted roads littered with burned-out vehicles recall the highways of The Walking Dead and the bizarre, empty streets of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later). As the area in which the farm is located (also unspecified) is unstable, Daisy and her cousins are split up by the Armed Forces and sent in different directions. Eddie and younger brother Isaac (Tom Holland, recently cast as the new Spider-Man) are conscripted, while Daisy and youngest sibling Piper (Harley Bird) are evacuated to a foster family in a distant town.
The film’s change in tack – from Devon to doomsday – is handled skillfully by Macdonald, with considerable help from editor Jinx Godfrey and cinematographer Franz Lustig. Initially the latter concentrates on the beautiful sights and colours of the countryside in the sunshine, and provides a succession of shots that highlight the abundance of wildlife and the beauty of the natural world, while the quick cuts and montages employed by the former ensure that the material is presented in a visually-stimulating fashion. A sense of timelessness is created swiftly, or perhaps a sense of a bygone era, and when the story moves away from Heathrow Airport only clothes, Daisy’s phone and the presence of an Apple Mac in a room remind us of the modern setting. (Indeed when the electricity cuts out and the kids huddle round a radio that plays recorded messages and Elgar’s Nimrod on a calming loop it could just as easily be a scene showing a household during the Second World War.)
The tonal shift that takes place post-bomb brings with it a certain understandable gloominess, and the brief move to a cold, damp suburban cul-de-sac serves as a striking contrast with the earlier part of the film, while we also see the effects of the war on the natural world: there is an unnerving image of a dead swan floating in a stream, the victim of water poisoning, and foxes are seen picking at a pile of fresh corpses. The country roads now have crucial armed checkpoints and farms are no longer depicted as places in which teenagers can enjoy long summer days and nights. Meanwhile information remains scarce, and the enemy seem to be constantly expanding their own territory.
Macdonald – whose credits include the documentaries One Day In September, Touching The Void and Life In A Day, as well as the entertaining feature The Last King Of Scotland – opts for a bleakness that isn’t usually found in similar ‘young adult’ fayre (the book was aimed at teenagers but was also released with a different ‘adult-oriented’ cover, which clearly suggests cross-over appeal). After a warm opening that seems nostalgic for the past (hence the presence of Nick Drake and Fairport Convention on the soundtrack) the mood of his film becomes thoroughly downbeat and its ending is suitably bleak: there’s a glimmer of hope, but the family has been unequivocally shattered by the war.
Interestingly, Ronan had already played the part of Daisy before, in a 2007 BBC radio adaptation; her accent here appears to be stranded in the mid-Atlantic, which is perhaps understandable for an actress who is Bronx-born but raised in Ireland, but the mix is enough to jolt you out of the picture at times. A minor gripe, and otherwise the acting is of a decent standard.
Directed by: Kevin Macdonald.
Written by: Jeremy Brock, Tony Grisoni, Penelope Skinner. Based on How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay, Tom Holland, Harley Bird, Anna Chancellor.
Cinematography: Franz Lustig.
Editing: Jinx Godfrey.
Music: Jon Hopkins, Various.
Running Time: 100 minutes.