Ethel & Ernest
Only those with the stoniest of hearts could fail to be moved by Ethel & Ernest. It is an adaptation of Raymond Briggs’s graphic novel of the same name, an autobiographical account of the lives of his parents – from their initial courtship and wedding, through the turbulent years of the Second World War, until both of their deaths in 1971. Many consider the novel to be his masterpiece; the film, while marred by a few creative decisions, does justice to his work.
Brenda Blethyn and Jim Broadbent bring perfect gravitas to Ethel and Ernest Briggs. She was a maid, he was a milkman; together, they bought a house in London and lived there for over 40 years. In their affection for tea and bickering about class – he’s a Labour supporter, she’s got middle-class aspirations – they may well be one of the most British couples ever put on screen. Though crucially, they are not sentimentalised; shocking moments include casually offensive conversations about race and homosexuality, where the era-appropriate views run counter to their otherwise likeable character quirks. There’s no real plot – life simply progresses at its natural pace, their family growing when Raymond (Luke Treadaway) is born.
Few authors in Britain hold quite the same affectionate pull as Briggs. He’s famous for The Snowman, that concise Christmas classic that helped shape plenty of childhoods. Though it’s important to remember his hard, unsentimental edge, a mature sensibility that never strays into dishonest nostalgia. In Ethel & Ernest, Roger Mainwood initially over-compensates with an excess of jolly music, as the happy couples’ relationship buzzes along. But as the story progresses, he better adapts to Briggs’s style; some of the images late in the film, those regarding death, hit hard in their unvarnished honesty.
The character animation is good, and the period is evoked with detail – though some sequences don’t disguise their computer-generated origin very well, looking like the product of a video game. Cultural comparisons can be made with the realist work of Isao Takahata, or the gentle side of Mike Leigh. There is even a hint of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, with the self-reflective presence of the author, and the dissonance between a cheerful art style and the politically and socially charged content. But Briggs has a style all of his own; with this complex film on family, change, and memory, his status as a quintessentially national treasure has never been clearer.
Ethel & Ernest is released nationwide on 28th October 2016.
Watch the trailer for Ethel & Ernest here: