It is a growing concern amongst certain film critics that any film that has a target audience other than 15-35 year old, heterosexual, middle-class men will probably receive a poor critical review, irrespective of the box office takings or the quality of the film. The harshest attacks from critics and the more aggressive side of the twittersphere are usually aimed at cinema produced for teenage girls, even if they are one of the most vocal audiences at declaring their love for the films/franchises that they embrace. The tragedy here seems to be the lack of imagination from other demographics of filmgoers at empathizing enough with young women/girls in order to enjoy a film that is aimed at them.
MacDonald’s adaption of Meg Rosoff’s much-loved debut How I Live Now is a film that unashamedly gets inside the head of it’s teenage protagonist. From the second it opens we hear a cacophony of teenage angst inside the head of Daisy (Saoirse Ronan), who we then follow for almost every shot of the film. Daisy is a 16 year old American girl who has been sent to England for the summer to spend some time with her 3 cousins, Edmond (George MacKay), Issac (Tom Holland) and Piper (Harley Bird) and her Aunt Penn, who incidentally works for the UN. She initially resents this move but ends up falling for the quiet and outdoorsy Eddie. The narrative thus begins as a teenage love story…
However, as Daisy begins to integrate more with her new friends, Aunt Penn is called off to Switzerland as there are rumours of a war breaking out after a bombing in Paris. Whilst she is gone a nuclear bomb is detonated in London, which leads to Daisy and Piper being taken to live in a safe zone with a suburban family, and Eddie and Isaac being taken against their will to fight the war effort.
MacDonald addresses the action from a teenage point-of-view – the politics of the lead up to war is mostly background noise, heard only fleetingly through the television and Aunt Penn’s computer screen. The younger sister Piper proclaims at one point that “Mum is an expert in loony extremists”, which is one of the only exposition hints that the war has been started due to an act of terrorism. The other overt references to ‘terrorists’, ‘Marshall law’ and ‘enemy units’, are spoken clumsily by adult characters in a way that lacks context to a teenage mind.
The film then descends into a dystopic wartime Britain that has echoes of the 1930s as the women are forced to work on farms for the war effort and there are rations on food and water. There is a scene where Daisy and Piper are sat around a dinner with their new conservative ‘parents’ eating carrots and potatoes and listening to the war report on the radio – they might as well have been listening to ye oldy wireless. Eventually they decide to run away back to Eddie and embark on a journey across the war-torn country to get ‘home’.
The film maintains a consistent disconnect between the teenagers, who want to coexist peaceful in the rural idyll and have picnics, go fishing and swim in rivers, and the adults who seem intent on creating war and abusing young people. It is worth noting that there are some serious depictions of war crimes involving young women that are incredibly hard to watch at moments, even if Daisy manages to get a form of revenge later.
Rosoff was probably being politically correct in the novel by not mentioning specifically who the attack comes from, and giving the enemy anonymity has two apparent functions: it highlights the decontextualised nature of war to a teenager/child, and also removes the slippery task of declaring a nation/group as evil enough to drop a nuclear bomb. By using this approach, the politically minded viewer is free to speculate who has brought about world war three: Aunt Penn’s computer screen has a graphic declaring ‘projected deaths across mainland Europe’ and there is broadcast footage of a previous bomb being set off in Paris, which hints to a non-European nation. Also, Daisy is an American national and is given a safe journey home from the Edinburgh consulate, which removes the USA. Numerous mentions are made about ‘terrorists’ and ‘groups’ taking responsibility for the attack, but the talk of a ceasefire at the end of the film suggests that the perpetrators have enough of a command structure to be brought to the negotiating table…
The film has a mostly gorgeous cinematography of the English countryside, reminiscent of Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go, and the narrative fits into the tradition of dark British Sci-Fi films such as 28 Days Later and Children Of Men. But, the most beautiful surprise of the film was the original soundtrack being composed by Jon Hopkins, who has made some of the most incredibly luscious electronic albums recently – his ambient stamp made the film beautifully cinematic in the truest sense of the word.