After reading the Meg Rosoff novel How I Live Now as a young teenager I entered the cinema prepared to take a nostalgic trip down memory lane. From what I could remember it was an idyllic story of love, with maybe a little bit of hardship thrown in, as a young American girl hides out with her cousins in the English countryside whilst a mysterious future war goes on around them. As it turns out, my memory appears to have been seriously affected by a few too many nights in the pub.
Unremittingly bleak, the film version of How I Live Now loosely follows the premise of the novel. The romantic idyll of total freedom portrayed in the first half only serves to fortify the weight of depression and misery on your shoulders in the second. I should have seen this coming; a film about war is likely to be dark. However there have been many successful films produced in and out of wartime that have managed to create moments of levity or at least a fleeting sense of hope in such dark times. This is an area where How I Live Now seems to fail; yes the first half serves to provide a counter to just how bad the world becomes, but that does not prevent it becoming somewhat of a slog of grim determination. Each horrific event begins to lack impact, as there are few moments between them to contrast or change the pace. Although creating a genuine sense of unease and fear for the young protagonists, there is little new and unexpected.
Other than slightly excessively shaky camera work in parts, the film is strikingly shot, using the English countryside to its full advantage, particularly when depicting the impact of a nuclear device, the catalyst of the war. Director Kevin Macdonald manages to create a moment that is both beautiful and terrifying, avoiding the usual mushroom cloud clichés. The performances of the younger members of the cast are also well handled in their charming precociousness.
What I had remembered from the novel was that the central relationship is between two cousins. When I was twelve or thirteen this was exceptionally scandalous, and although I am not quite open minded enough to think of this as normal it was handled well, making it a genuine relationship rather than a creepy one. Overall the set up of the relationship between all the cousins was done in a quietly joyful manner that made you understand the lengths that were gone to in order to return to the elation and freedom of home.
One aspect I did have to call into question was the lack of explanation into the war itself. Although there were clearly reasons behind this, demonstrating that the presence of soldiers had come to be expected, as well as creating a sense of childlike naivety, one would expect some degree of political awareness by the older teenagers to give some sense of context and realism to the audience.
Despite feeling totally drained as I left the cinema, How I Live Now was certainly thought-provoking and bold in its portrayal of a war-torn society. The contrast between the two parts of the film is effective enough to keep you contemplating it and the real life possibilities long after the bus ride home.