Review: How I Live Now / Cert: 15 / Director: Kevin Macdonald / Screenplay: Tony Grisoni, Jeremy Brock, Penelope Skinner / Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, George Mackay, Harley Bird, Anna Chancellor / Release Date: Out Now
Based on Meg Rosof’s popular ‘young adult’ novel, Kevin (Last King of Scotland) Macdonald’s How I Live Now is very much a film of two halves… but fortunately the second half - gritty, uncompromising and sometimes brutal - makes up for the slightly mawkish soppiness of the first half. Ronan (last seen in the forgettable The Host) is Daisy, a disenfranchised and troubled New York teen packed off to live in the English countryside with distant family as a worldwide nuclear conflict looms. Frosty and offhand, Daisy soon learns to tolerate her new makeshift family and, in time (probably too quickly) falls in love with... er… her cousin Edmond (Mackay). We might have to think about that one…
So far, so lovey-dovey. Fortunately signs and portents are all around us; the military have been mobilised, jet fighters scream overhead, the kids’ activist mother (Chancellor) is making feverish phone calls as she tries to guarantee her family’s safety from something she seems certain is About To Happen. Unfortunately the sickly and cloying first thirty minutes, as Daisy slowly acclimatises to her new surroundings and falls for hunky cow-whispering Edmond (Mackay) just seems to be delaying what promises to be a much more interesting story of survival and terrible hardship. Luckily the film shifts out of first gear when a nuclear device is detonated in London and the kids, frolicking in the woods, hear the blast and hurry home to find out that the country is falling into chaos and the lights have gone out. They quickly adapt to their new circumstances (but don’t seem hugely troubled by the fact that their mother, who jetted off to Geneva, doesn’t seem to be coming home) when the military arrive and split the group up. Torn apart, Edmond and Daisy both promise to find a way back to the farm but before long Daisy and cousin Piper are shacked up with a family in a darkened suburban estate and forced to forage potatoes and fruit from towers of rotting crops. Eventually the pair escape and set off on a long and dangerous journey through a treacherous countryside in which wander vicious bandits and potential rapists.
How I Live Now has its faults - mainly its sluggish and deceptively-dreary first act - but behind the soft-focus spooning and rural romping there’s a tough, brutal story which evokes everything from 1970s’ post-plague TV series Survivors to 28 Days Later and the brilliant Children of Men. This is a typically British dystopia of mud, guns, cold food and blisters, a nightmare apocalypse made more unnerving by the fact that we’re never fully apprised of exactly what the situation really is. We’re told of a massive nuclear detonation killing tens of thousands in London, gun-wielding guerilla forces who ruthlessly slaughter refugees, and terrorists poisoning the country’s water supply, but we don’t know who the aggressors are or what’s really going on beyond the world Daisy and her family inhabit. And their world just gets grimmer and grimmer; the scene where Daisy tentatively investigates crumpled, bin-bagged corpses in the camp where Edmond and his brother Isaac have been interred is almost unbearably bleak. Many may find the film’s ending a bit too glib also - it seems that World War Three isn’t necessarily the end of the world as we know it - and the relationship between Daisy and Edmond is ultimately bittersweet at best. How I Live Now, powered by dynamic performances from Ronan and young Harley Bird as Piper and atmospherically-directed by Macdonald, is unlikely to find a huge audience because it’s often cold and challenging stuff, its heart far blacker than its familiar and deceptive fish-out-of-water first half-hour might suggest. Apocalypse aficionados will find the film agreeably stark and thankfully worlds away from the cheery devastation offered up by the likes of Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich. Uncomfortable viewing but highly and surprisingly accomplished.
Expected Rating: 6 out of 10