When Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is sent to stay with relatives in the English countryside one summer she strikes up a romance with a local boy, Edmund (George MacKay). But the idyllic surroundings quickly turn into a war zone, and Daisy finds herself in hiding and fighting for her survival as third world war breaks out in Europe.
I found it hard to love or even enjoy vast stretches of this film
Kevin MacDonald’s new feature begins as strongly as anything I’ve seen this year, with a barrage of brief, fragmentary shots—of an individual in transit: the queues at airport immigration, the coldly appraising stares of border police—which abruptly turn menacing: suddenly we’re aware of soldiers with semi-automatics, scanning the ranks of arriving passengers. Entering the arrivals area we find a crowd glued to the televisions overhead, and footage of a recent bombing—Paris, apparently, is in flames"¦ And all of it set to the only good song Amanda Palmer’s ever released, the bratty, T-Rex-channelling 'Do It With a Rockstar’.
As opening gambits go, it’s unusually powerful, reminiscent in detail as well as mood of millennial doomsayers like DeLillo and Pynchon and Saunders. The jagged editing, Franz Lustig’s handheld camera, the distorted, start-stop score—all convey a convincing sense of disorder and unease. (For this reviewer, the sequence was thrillingly reminiscent of flying into Stansted on the morning of July 7, 2005, and discovering that a series of bombs had exploded across London just minutes before.)
Such breathless severity can’t be sustained, of course. Before long we’ve identified our protagonist: American teenager Daisy (Irish actress Saoirse Ronan), who’s been packed off to Britain by her father to stay with some distant relations, and is far from happy about it—or anything else. One of these relatives—14-year-old Isaac, as roundly bespectacled as any teenage wizard—has turned up to collect her, and as he drives her to their house in the country, there are flashes of the same hallucinatory intensity, this time glimpsed from the window of the car as it tears through the English countryside. (Accompanied, now, by Fairport Convention’s great 'Tam Lin’: let no one accuse this soundtrack of mediocrity.)
One of these images—a youth standing like a sentinel by the side of the road, a falcon at rest on his forearm—is so powerful, so unexpected and pagan, I found myself hoping it would be left unexplained: a little irruption of English landscape-magic into Daisy’s very American life. But no. The boy in question not only reappears, but turns out to be none other than her 17-year-old cousin Edmond, a brooding hunk with a penchant for chunky jumpers and a profound, wordless affinity with nature. (He’s sensitive, okay?)
Previously a sulky miserabilist, she’s hooked at first sight—and in the space of a few short scenes, has turned positively coquettish. Their budding relationship suffers rather a setback, however, with the onset of what appears to be a limited nuclear exchange—a development already foreshadowed, none too adroitly, by some glum pronouncements from Daisy’s eight-year-old cousin Piper ('There’s going to be a third world war,’ she sighs at the breakfast table), and all but confirmed in her single late-night encounter with her aunt, who may or may not be some sort of EU negotiator, shuttling between Brussels and home in a bid to avert catastrophe.
In fact it’s not quite WWIII, but it’s still enough to knock out the power, rain a fine white ash down upon the landscape (instantly?), and see huge swathes of the country placed under martial law by an interim government that, again, may or may not be Fascist. And despite their stubborn desire to remain alone, in their messy rural idyll, the youngsters are soon discovered by troops and separated: the boys sent to some kind of internment camp, while Daisy and Piper are billeted with a husband and wife in the Midlands—a fate, if not worse than death, at least commensurate with it.
Daisy, it should be noted, has already been offered an escape route. As an American citizen, she’s entitled to a plane ticket back to the US, a veritable Get Out of Jail Free-card delivered to her door by a nameless embassy worker; his taciturn efficiency, in his single scene, communicates the gravity of the situation better than anything else here. But she’s burned the ticket in order to stay—though not with her new family unit, per se (Isaac and Piper mean almost nothing to her), but with Edmond in particular. A small but crucial ethical distinction that’s accorded rather less weight, here, than it deserves.
I like the idea of teenage solipsism being overtaken by global events; nevertheless, I found it hard to love or even enjoy vast stretches of this film. The problem, I think, lies less in the horror of unfolding events—which, by the standards of apocalyptic war movies (the gold-standard being Elim Klimov’s Come and See) is actually fairly mild—than in our heroine. Ronan is often good, but she’s not great here. Her Daisy is initially too one-note, a tense little bundle of unrelieved angst, and then errs too much in the other direction; you don’t believe for one moment her transformation into either a love-struck puppy, giggling as she’s chased by buff, shirtless Edmond, or a rugged action heroine, leading her young charge to safety and reuniting the clan.
For much of the second half of the film, with Edmond gone and his fate unknown, the drama’s central relationship becomes that between Daisy and Piper, and here the drama falters; the kid is annoying, their scenes together are boring, and the pacing grows slack, despite a succession of determinedly shocking discoveries. There are weird lapses in logic: within days of meeting, Daisy and Edmond start snogging at every available opportunity—yet the other two kids either don’t notice or don’t care. Which would make them extremely unusual children. And what’s with the use of voiceover, taking us inside Daisy’s apparently unstable mind for some drearily literal narration ('Get out of your comfort-zone"¦ take risks’)"¦ which the film then contrives to forget as soon as the situation turns dark?
Adapted from Meg Rosoff’s young-adult novel, it comes to the screen with no less than four credited screenwriters, including the estimable Tony Grisoni. This, I suspect, suggests some fundamental disagreement or dissonance in what exactly this film should be, and what it’s trying to say. Many of its plastic virtues are sound. The production design is especially good—the family’s rambling, shambolic home is beautifully detailed, palpably real. But in subordinating the end of the world (albeit on a strictly European scale) to a teen romance, the entire project becomes as solipsistic and dopey as its protagonist. As Daisy would say (the first Daisy, that is—not the brave, endlessly resourceful survivalist she becomes), it’s kind of a bummer.