Thursday, 10 October 2013
Review: How I Live Now (UK Cert 15)
When I sat down in the cinema to watch The Hunger Games, I was expecting great things. I hadn’t read the books, but plenty of my friends had, and were all telling me how I absolutely had to see this film. Also, to quote the guy at the cinema who gave me my ticket; “You’re really gonna like this film!”
While I didn’t walk out of the cinema in a violent rage (the guy who sold me my ticket would have been first on my hit list!), I did feel like I had watched a film that had been sifted, pulped and filleted, its source material replaced with the latest cutesy ride at Disney World.
Kevin MacDonald’s How I Live Now is the polar opposite of The Hunger Games. If The Hunger Games is the sweet, Photo Shopped, caked under a JCB-load of make-up, little girl, then How I Live Now is its chain smoking, tongue pierced, ripped tights-wearing twin sister. MacDonald is the man who gave us The Last King of Scotland; he doesn’t do dumbed down.
MacDonald’s latest is set in remote England. The world is in turmoil, governments across the globe fighting with rebels (occasionally referred to as terrorists) for reasons unknown. Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is sent to England to live with her cousins until things calm down. At first, Daisy is your typical moody teenager who hates everyone and has a smart answer for everything (“I’m a Yank, but I’m not gonna kiss your ass, just ‘cause you’re British!”). Soon she starts to love her family – Edmond, her eldest cousin (George MacKay), especially – and their optimistic, naïve view of the world. When a dirty bomb goes off in London, Daisy and Edmond are separated, taken to military camps that are far from safe and secure. Forced to look after her youngest cousin Piper (Peppa Pig’s Harley Bird) and grow up fast, Daisy decides to trek across Britain, back to her family’s cottage, in the hope that Edmond will be there waiting.
While How I Live Now is for a teenage audience, it has not been made for fans of Twilight. The film does not shy away from its grim, harrowing depiction of a war-torn Britain. It is violent, with a well-judged mix of what is shown (Daisy searching through body bags that have been ravaged by foxes, wanting to know if her cousins are dead, is truly hard to watch) and what is implied (one character, a teenager, is shot whilst trying to escape a gun battle). This is an anti-war film, and MacDonald does not tone down the abominations that Daisy witnesses on her journey home (made even more upsetting, being set in the English countryside).
MacDonald manages to pull off the same trick he used in The Last King of Scotland. In this film, James McAvoy lives the good life working as Forest Whitaker’s doctor. We know it will never last, and MacDonald knows we know, skilfully playing with our anticipation so that, when the inevitable happens, it is every bit as brutal as we expect. At the beginning of How I Live Now, Franz Lustig’s cinematography shows us a striking English landscape and litters it with shots of low flying planes, army trucks and barricades. We see Daisy and her family playing in the fields and forests, happy and not hurting anyone, and know this will never last. When the dirty bomb goes off, Lustig manages to make it both beautiful and frightening, Piper believing that it has suddenly started to snow. As Daisy and Piper journey across Britain, MacDonald barely gives us time to breathe, and when he does, it is usually followed by something bad; Piper finds chocolates and expensive shoes in the woods, only to realise they are debris from a plane crash, the bodies hanging above them in the trees. How I Live Now isn’t a full ninety minutes of grim depression. It is hopeful without being happy, smiley and syrupy-sweet and, certainly for teenagers, if not all of us, it has an important and optimistic message.
One of the many reasons the film works is down to Saoirse Ronan’s performance. Her transformation from self-centred teenager to a smart, pro-active and fiercely protective woman is convincing and flawless. You would have to be a cold human being not to be cheering her on.
The soundtrack deserves a special mention, with songs from Daughter, Natasha Khan, and Amanda Palmer. Jon Hopkins’s score is a mixture of soaring, dewy-eyed symphonies as well as music that sounds like it came from your most sinister and disturbing nightmares.
I’m going to be picky here and stop myself from giving How I Live Now a perfect fiver stars, and this is because of the ending. It’s brilliant in the sense that it’s not the happy ever after ending that some teenage girls might be hoping for, but it is optimistic, suggesting that if you find someone who genuinely loves you, you can overcome any scars you have suffered in your life. THAT I don’t have a problem with! What had me scratching my head is how the British government seems to quickly regain control of the country, life pretty much returning to normal. I started to wonder if the rebels had suddenly swapped their guns for water pistols. Maybe that’s the point, that despite what the creepy government broadcasts might say, things will never be “back to normal” for Britain’s survivors. If this is what MacDonald was after, then the ending’s impact felt watered down, like the script was trying to conveniently wrap things up.
This is the only problem I had with the film, and it’s a very minor one. How I Live Now is a love story that does not patronise its audience. It is gripping, at times frightening, and has scene-after-scene of faultless cinematography. It’s just a shame that, despite starring The Host and Byzantium’s Saoirse Ronan, it will largely go unnoticed at the box office, while the latest Hunger Games will make enough money to wipe out the world’s debt problems.
4 out of 5