NZIFF ’17/03: ETHEL & ERNEST

2016; adapted and directed by Roger Mainwood; 94 mins

Just before I went to see this movie, I took in a screening of Luc Besson’s latest sci-fi extravaganza, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and watched for the best part of two and a half hours as he tried super hard to shove a whole load of “wow” down my throat. I was bored. I tried but I was bored. After that long assault on my senses, this movie came and sat down and chatted with me for 90 minutes and I was riveted.

An adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ eponymous cartoon biography of his parents, picking up in 1928 with their early flirtations through marriage, childbirth, war, work, trips to the beach, grown-up children, disease, death and the everyday routines of a lifetime’s love. We meet Ethel as a lady’s maid, cleaning for a crusty, well-to-do old lady, every morning waiting for and waving to Ernest, a local milkman, on his way to work. Both Londoners, she’s a lower middle class Tory, he’s a working class Labour supporter but whatever their political views, they love each other almost unconditionally til death do they both part in 1971.

What’s nice about Briggs’ telling of the story is how he is, naturally, so much a part of it but it’s not about him. It’s an observation of them and he comes in and out of the narrative when required. Otherwise, the film zeroes in on his parents as the film skips through both key moments and the little details over four decades in their lives. Rather like Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s wonderful Persepolis, an adaptation of Satrapi’s own comic book autobiography, this film crams a lot into a short space of time. It hops from one event to another (although placing a large emphasis on the war years) but it never feels like it’s skimming through the greatest hits. Largely because it has such a uncannily tight focus on the central couple and also due to it’s emphasis on the ordinary. A big event to these two is the purchase of their first telephone.

Brenda Blethyn as Ethel and Jim Broadbent as Ernest are great too! Warm and loving in a way that could probably only be done by older actors who have understood the rigours of marriage. Interestingly, their older voices still fit into the younger versions of the characters, I think more because they feel like they fit that older time. I suppose, they sound like an Ethel and an Ernest, if you know what I mean. The voices fit the names.

The perennial back-and-forth concerning their political ideals (Labour v Conservative) is a shrewd and often very funny character thread, strengthened by their truly human little hypocrisies. Whilst he is generally forward-thinking and she very much about Victorian values, there is an interesting scene in which small-C conservative Ethel goes off on one about Jews, Arabs and Germans, to which leftie Ernest chimes in about Serbs and Croats. Later on, on the very peripheries of the swinging sixties, she’s thrilled at the idea of a female MP, he is quietly derisive. However, she (and this is so English) is snobbish towards the working classes, despite her own lower status and constantly reprimands him for speaking improperly or singing Cockney songs. Most tellingly of all, both of them are baffled by the subject of homosexuality.

The way they speak (lost phrases like “ya daft ha’porth!” and the many uses of the word “blimey”), their dress and mannerisms, look and sound so right that, for all the films it reminded me of (High Hopes, This Happy Breed), I thought most about my grandad Bertie and my great granny’s house in Surrey. I thought about the allotment in Carisbrooke and spam sandwiches that I’d have to pretend to like, I thought about rain, supermarkets and elbows off the table.

The film’s digital animation style is made to look like Briggs’ pencil drawings which really pays dividends. All your senses are catered for. The deliberately sketchy design, evokes naff wallpaper, perfectly laid tables and smoking indoors. Also, very effectively, director Roger Mainwood wisely keeps a slight distance on the action. For the most part, the film is wides and mids and fairly static (reminding us of it’s comic panel origins) but it uses close-ups and tracks at carefully chosen moments that pay off emotionally with the audience. It’s the great illusion of animation; it’s just ink and paper but it’s one of the most moving and relatable, life-like movies of the year!

ETHEL & ERNEST has two more screenings at Rialto Cinema on 17th August at 6.15p.m. and 20th August at 4p.m.

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