SAOIRSE RONAN’S particularly scary eyes highlight Kevin Macdonald’s interesting yet ultimately flat How I Live Now; it’s an inward-looking but uncanny gaze, the crystal eyes that first startled us when Ronan played the eyewitness in Atonement. She’s older now, and the eyes are color-corrected to the point of indeterminacy, a hue ranging from amethyst to the color of a glass of cold water.
How I Live Now is a speculative fantasy of a new British civil war tearing up the heartland of England. This adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s young adult novel tells of the troubled, angry Daisy (Ronan). Her negligent father has shipped her out from New York, to go stay with her cousins and her aunt in a farmhouse deep in the countryside. Daisy has a veritable wall of attitude: she uses her temper to tune out the scolding voices in her head, commanding her to compulsively wash, to hate herself, to be disgusted by all kinds of food.
Daisy is not a poor relation, yet her cousins strangely don’t resent this intruder from across the ocean—despite the fact that the situation is getting terribly bleak in the near-future U.K. We’re informed of this during the American cousin’s arrival: there are only two airport buses a day out of the international terminal. Barracks of armed, uniformed troops guard the place. The road into the woods is littered with signs of upcoming war, and Fairport Convention’s ominous “Tam Lin” plays as they drive. (“Tonight is HalloweenÉ”) Who, exactly, is on the warpath? Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) wants to keep the threat vague and apolitical.
Settled in, Daisy learns to appreciate rural life, especially a farmer-prince named Eddie (George MacKay). She finally gets a few minutes with her overbooked Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor), who is trying to stave off the impending war with the help of some unnamed NGO in Geneva; she flies there, leaving her family behind. She’s a workaholic, that’s what Aunt Penn is. Everyone over 21 in a Y.A. novel has some bad flaw; in such novels those under 21 may be flawed, but it’s because they are a victim of someone over 21.
One day, a mighty wind comes in, and with it flakes of ash: “It’s snowing,” says the adorable youngest cousin Piper (Harley Bird). The radioactive “snow” brings with it wartime measures: the drafting of the young men, the relocation and forcing into farm work of the young girls. It’s a new life for Daisy picking through rotted piles of vegetables to find the edible potatoes; dinner is mystery meat, and small pitcher of rationed water purified with what looks like Alka-Seltzer tablets. Daisy’s days are punctuated by the pop, pop, fizz, fizz, and the only electronic media: broadcasts (Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstances”, of course) on the Wartime Radio Service. Ultimately, Daisy flees with little Piper to head on a harrowing, corpse-lined journey back to the idyllic farm with its streams filled with fat trout and woods full of plump rabbits.
If the point is to help today’s teen imagine what it would be like in a state of wartime in their town—if they were living in Baghdad or Sarajevo instead of someplace nice and green—Macdonald achieves partial success. But when compared to the more complex allegories of occupation and wartime (Ingmar Bergman’s Shame, for instance) How I Live Now is presented as all atrocities, and no subtleties.
I know it could happen here, but would it look like this? Macdonald lovelies his island up: gilded flies by day merge into hovering embers from a cozy campfire by night. What was that line in Hiroshima Mon Amour? “They make commercials to sell soap, why don’t they make commercials to sell peace?” “Where do you buy it?” Pauline Kael retorted, but if ever there was a commercial to sell peace, this is it. Today’s fussing over diets and social mores could be gone with the wind in a minute: that’s this film’s voiced-over message. There may also be another message, unspoken: a message of rebuke, to fussy, angry, rude kids. You think you’ve got it bad now? Just wait.
R; 101 min.