How I Live Now Review
Posted by Terry Lewis on 11.08.2013
Book adaptation specialist Kevin Macdonald gives NYC moody teen Saoirse Ronan a shot at love in the middle of World War 3 in Britain. But is it a boom for the Armageddon survivor genre? Or the end of the world for How You Watch This Film Now? 411's own Terry Lewis chips in
Saoirse Ronan - Daisy George Mackay - Edmond Tom Holland - Isaac Harley Bird - Piper Danny McEvoy - Joe Anna Chancellor - Aunt Penn
It’s a bit strange when you look back on certain directors careers after a big success with an award and critical praise earning movie. Take Kevin Macdonald of Last King Of Scotland fame. Earning BAFTAs and Oscar nominations for his work there, since then his filmography has become one filled with adaptations and interesting documentaries which isn’t a bad thing but he’s certainly set in his ways. Still set, he’s charged with bringing teen apocal-drama novel How I Live Now to the big screen. What you can’t knock however is the quality of Macdonald’s big screen adaptations.
Troubled, moody NYC teen Daisy (Saoirse Ronan, The Host) is shipped off to the rural British countryside where she clashes with her free living country cousins in an idyllic cottage. Piper (Harley Bird, the voice of Peppa Pig) is the typical annoying little girl who doesn’t know better and Isaac (Tom Holland, The Impossible) is the 14 year old “housewife” keeping everyone ticking over whilst his government inspector mother is always away. Eventually Daisy warms to the family but has eyes for her older cousin Edmond (George Mackay, Defiance) and engages in a relationship with him. It’s all a bit of a shame then really when World War III happens to break out. Ignoring a free ticket home back to the States to stay with her extended family, Daisy and Piper end up being split from the rest of the boys and sent to work camps. Determined, Daisy aims to escape and reunite with Edmond.
Ronan adds to her growing reputation as a quality actress with a grand performance as the fluxing Daisy. Haunted by the death of her mother during her birth and typical teen lifestyle, she’s an absorbing character who you can get your teeth into. Her determination is fuelled by constant inner monologing advising her on what to do to succeed. Ronan captures the bitch attitude magnificently of a typical female teenager concerned about status, style and not giving a flying about what others think or about them. Always a pleasure to watch on screen she is.
But oddly it’s Bird who steals the show. The voice behind kids TV’s Peppa Pig puts in an unexpectedly brilliant performance as Piper. For someone with her background, you wouldn’t really expect her to be a great actress but she’s so good here. Such naivity from a child actress who doesn’t understand in her own way why her American brooding teen cousin doesn’t want to hang out with her, then skips off to play with her “unicorn” (a goat with a carrot). Such fun to watch, even if Piper doesn’t retreat into understanding kid mode for the film’s second half when you want How I Live Now to get to it’s conclusion.
Thinking about it, this is probably the highest quality kid orientated cast I have ever seen. I got behind Holland’s Isaac, not realizing he’s now the “mum” of the house. Essentially cooking and cleaning for the rest of the family since there’s no one else around in the times of strife rather selflessly, he’s so likeable. It leads to a spot of comedy with Isaac going to pick up Daisy from the airport (in a spot of underage driving) and being completely oblivious almost to her city/modern teen ways. There’s a bit of an exception with Mackay as Edmond mind. He’s the main hand round the cottage and knows his country life but he’s not all that interesting and is just a rugged country boy just to appease the ladies.
With the adaption of a young teen novel, Macdonald’s vision of How I Live Now has a scattergun approach to which audience it’s after. The source material is clearly aimed at female teens with the relationship between Daisy and Edmond but the concept and plot of survivors in wartime/Armageddon is more of a guy thing in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, there will be a crossover between the two and the film just about manages to balance the two out to appease either audience but it’s interesting in media terms in a superb modification of book to film which will be of interest of more male cinemagoers.
Actually, you can forgive yourself for thinking this wasn’t an Armageddon genre film. It’s obviously not the focal point of the film – that’s Daisy’s journey – but you are left a little bit dissatisfied with the intentional lack of information. It’s annoying for the film to be so vague. Who are the terrorists? How have they managed to infiltrate the whole expansive British countryside? What are their goals? Guess I’m just nitpicking since it’s not the film’s focus and perhaps I’m being really unfair because it’s so refreshing to have a motivated survivor film which is a bit different from your usual “end of the world” fare.
Credit must go to the slow burning ominous feeling from the opening with a ridiculous level of security at a British airport followed by all the background talk of Daisy’s aunt being quite hand for exposition as a government disaster expert. When the kids ignore their evacuation orders/warnings, they don’t have a clue from that point what’s happening during the world war being fought all over, leaving their idyllic lifestyle living off the land and having fun as kids do, yet shredding audience nerves further. The juxtaposition between the kids building bonfires and living a natural life to the fullest in the great outdoors with Daisy & Piper walking across countryside later in the film with gun shots firing off in the background is a joy to watch, soaking the film in an engrossing fluid until the very end.
Thematically, How I Live Now aims high with the amount of topics it covers and it achieves most if not all. As the main character, Daisy goes through it all. An evolution from spoilt, moody island teen to family member to lover to unexpected mother/big sister figure to Piper in a short space of time in a natural progression is the main focus, yet there’s more with her hallucinogenic dreams over Edmond. There’s a lovely slab of survivor’s guilt in Daisy surviving her childbirth over her mother and what happens to Edmond. I would have liked a bit more soul searching from the kids as it would be natural for them to ask “why us?” when WW3 decides to spoil the fun yet natural Piper reflects a lot of that.
The 411: As an alternative to your usual World War Three/Armageddon genre film, How I Live Now excels. The “road home” story is barely explored nowadays and Macdonald in a great adaptation brings the teen romance aspect of two lovers separated by war to life. An emotionally excelling and thematically thick film is backed up by a great kids cast. Changed my expectations for war time stories in How I Watch Now.