Film Review: How I Live Now
Posted on October 9, 2013
Saoirse Ronan gives a moving performance in this youthful romance set against the backdrop of an intense war on British soil.
Daisy (Saoirse Ronan), an American teenager with attitude issues, arrives in Britain to spend the summer with her English cousins. Cast aside by her father who has re-married after the death of her mother, Daisy’s first appearance is accompanied by hard rock pumping through her headphones giving us our first glimpse of Daisy’s chaotic internal world. Daisy’s Bohemian English relations – whose fishing and river swimming habits verge on twee – are a far cry from her expectations. When war arrives in the form of a massive nuclear explosion, our protagonists experience it from afar as ash rains down over their countryside idyll. Amid the blackouts and increasingly fearful silences a love affair takes shape between Daisy and earnest cousin Edmond (George MacKay). But the realities of war soon impress themselves on this group of hopeful youngsters as the boys and girls are torn apart by British forces. Daisy’s subsequent determination to make it back to Edmond make for a harrowing and brutal drama.
How I Live Now is a film of two halves whose light, predictable romance gives way to visceral and powerful images of war. Initially, Daisy’s sheer brattishness is a lot to take, and the masking of her insecurities which we hear bubbling beneath the surface in chaotic voiceover is flimsy at best. It’s also unavoidably reminiscent of Ronan’s role in earlier teen romance, The Host, penned by Stephenie Meyer of the Twilight franchise. The script finally gives Daisy’s character the chance to unfurl in a checked conversation with her neglectfully busy Aunt, in which Ronan’s suppressed tears speak volumes about Daisy’s relationship with her mother. This largely wasted opportunity to explore Daisy’s demons in any real depth lends little power to the burgeoning romance which relies on borrowed and cliched moments from stifling, burning glances during the blackouts to passionate lovemaking in a barn.
Yet the booming sound that marks the onset of war also marks a step change in the tone of How I Live Now. Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King Of Scotland) doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of war and his blend of brutal imagery with Saoirse Ronan’s determination and all-consuming screen presence is How I Live Now’s greatest strength. Combined with the beautiful cinematography from Franz Lustig, How I Live Now delivers a poignant and uplifting vision of England throughout the hardest of times.
“How I Live Now delivers a poignant and uplifting vision of England throughout the hardest of times”
The impulsiveness of youth – Daisy rashly chooses war-torn Britain over a free pass back to the US – is rapidly replaced by an acceptance of the consequences of those choices. That this new role suits Daisy much better than the troubled confusion of adolescence will appeal to teenage audiences. As Daisy shows compassion towards her younger cousin, Piper (Harley Bird), and fiercely guards her from war’s very real dangers, Ronan steps into a league of her own.
Macdonald’s decision not to sugar coat his vision of war brings a vivid, visceral clarity to How I Live Now. Sadly this strength of vision remains glaringly absent from the film’s earlier romantic scenes which lack originality and authenticity. Yet Ronan holds this disjointed film together with a fresh and powerful performance giving us a girl whose tough exterior is pierced by acute vulnerability. Despite a shaky start, Macdonald delivers a persuasive drama about responsibility and finding a place in the world.
Verdict: ✭✭✭✭✩ 4/5