Kevin Macdonald’s new film How I Live Now, adapted from the book by Meg Rosoff, is an unusual hybrid: part teen-romance, part post-apocalypse survival ordeal. Events are seen from the point of view of Daisy, an unhappy American girl who one summer is offloaded by her widower father onto her cousins in England. Daisy is uptight, defensive and governed by an arbitrary and often contradictory set of rules in her head that seem to prevent her doing or enjoying pretty much anything – her relatives by sharp contrast are easy-going, uninhibited and think nothing of letting farmyard animals roam around their ramshackle but impossibly idyllic old house deep in the English countryside. After some initial reflexive frostiness Daisy finds herself being swayed by the sheer charm and friendliness of the household and by the uncanny (and possibly telepathy-assisted) appeal of her taciturn but tender cousin Edmond in particular, so it’s a bit unfortunate when the situation gets suddenly complicated by the outbreak of war, with nuclear bombs being dropped on cities and terrorist factions sweeping through rural and outlying communities. The remainder of the film shows Daisy’s efforts to harness her will to challenges considerably more formidable than the maintenance of her self-denial and viewers should prepare themselves for some surprisingly unsavoury encounters and discoveries.
Both the romantic and the survival aspects of the scenario are pretty well-worn and have been explored already in countless books, films and TV shows so it represents something of a triumph for Macdonald that his film seems as fresh and accessible as it does: you’re hooked and drawn into the story from the minute that Daisy is greeted at the airport by her cheery cousin Isaac, with the only distracting element being the montage of her interior voices that occasionally pops up on the soundtrack to underline her conflicted state. It helps greatly that the script is genuinely funny, and delivered with naturalistic warmth by the young cast (Saoirse Ronan is onscreen more or less constantly as Daisy and manages the character’s changes in mood and resolution very well, but my favourite performance comes from the sixteen year old Tom Holland as Isaac. He was pretty great in The Impossible too). The locations too have been chosen and used with great care. Quite apart from the striking beauty of the landscapes (which are apparently in Wales in real life) there’s the way that several times a place – a farmhouse, a wood, a riverbank – recurs in the story in a very different light to how it was seen originally, with what used to be comforting and secure being recast as sinister and uncertain. The cataclysm when it comes is managed very effectively, with few special effects other than a wind machine and drop-out on the soundtrack, and the immediate aftermath is presented very differently to the chaos seen in something like Threads or The Day After: the characters are so far from the action that nothing much changes straight away, and it’s only when officials and soldiers start turning up after a few days that things get really serious.
I ended up really liking How I Lived Now, for its humanity and humour, and for what felt like a pretty convincing vision of how a breakdown of civilisation might play out. I’ve seen the basic plot of a group of children having to fend for themselves in a hostile environment a few times (most recently in the German film Lore, which is in some ways strikingly similar to this) but that didn’t make it any less gripping this time round, or the shocks when they come any less gut-wrenching. Very impressive stuff.