ON IN CINEMAS
Ethel & Ernest
This animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’s affectionate look back at his deceased parents starts off in London in 1928 as Ethel (voiced by Brenda Blethyn), working as a servant of an aristocratic elderly lady, looks out of the living room window each day as Ernest (Jim Broadbent) cycles on his way to work. One day Ernest plucks up the courage to brandish flowers in his hand and ask her on a date. Soon the pair are a happily married couple living in a terraced house, and a couple of years later give birth to their first - and only - child Raymond.
The film follows them through the years as they experience the various ups and downs of life during World War II, food rationing and Raymond’s shock decision to pursue a life as an artist.
If you are familiar with Raymond Briggs’s previous graphic novels turned films (particularly that perennial Christmas favourite The Snowman and the disturbing anti-nuclear parable When The Wind Blows) you will know what to expect here, albeit with a more ambitious scope. There is a certain misty-eyed affection in its picture-book look back at a pair of homely but stoic characters nattering away amid warmly nostalgic backdrops. The world and its people are beautifully realised with a mixture of pencil art and seamlessly integrated CGI, the period details staying winsomely authentic right down to the garish 1930s wallpaper in their house and the ever-changing vehicles in the street outside. The view back touches a genuine comfort zone in the deep recesses of the mind; there is something identifiable here of the way parents (or, depending on age, grandparents) from the pre-war age tended to be, from the learned ability to take almost everything in their stride, through the difficulties in grasping the arrival of new technologies to the hoarding of dusty old memorabilia. While there are embellishments that aren’t entirely realistic - that black cat, though a charming addition to the film, would probably have ended up in the Guinness Book Of Records for living as long as it did - there’s something genuine and heartfelt here that makes it work.
However, as with The Snowman and When The Wind Blows there is also a distinctly sad acknowledgement of mortality. The losses of war (in the film’s most visually and thematically dark scenes) and the losses of old age are covered here. So, while the film is celebratory of the wonder of those who brought us up, it isn’t afraid to look at the more difficult times that all of us inevitably face in life. What’s truly eye-opening however is that Raymond displays a refreshing honesty by admitting that his relationship with his parents wasn’t always plain sailing. This is all portrayed in a low key manner with a clear avoidance any saccharine embellishments - which makes it feel more recognisable and honest as part of the detachment of hindsight.
There’s also a few touchings on the political differences between the titular duo; while Ernest is shown to be a staunchly working class Labour voter, the more aspirational Ethel is drawn to the Tories. Despite this however they maintain a touching sense of natural acceptance of each other that characterises true lifelong partnership. Raymond Briggs doesn’t seem to take any particular side; if anything the message is more of “why can’t we all just get along?”
As a paean of appreciation of those who brought us up and an expression of hope for a better future for today’s generations, Ethel & Ernest is a bittersweet gem.
Runtime: 94 mins
Dir: Roger Mainwood
Script: Roger Mainwood, from a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs
Voices: Brenda Blethyn, Jim Broadbent, Luke Treadaway, Pam Ferris, Virginia McKenna, Harry Collett