Published Nov 15, 2013Passionate and reliable director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) tackles this adaptation of Meg Rosoff's turbulent coming-of-age novel with verve and skill. Not every stylistic flourish feels smoothly integrated, but the attempt to embellish the visceral experience of a young lady falling in love on the cusp of World War III through auditory and visual, rather than expository, means is admirable.
Frantically edited to the exuberant, anarchistic cabaret rock of Amanda Palmer's "Do It With a Rockstar," an angst-ridden, slightly neurotic American girl by the name of Daisy (Hanna's highly adaptable Saoirse Ronan) arrives by plane in the UK to spend the summer with extended family in the English countryside. In the background of this opening montage, chatter and images from newscasts convey the political climate of a world rocked by great violence from unnamed assailants.
While armed soldiers patrol every street corner in the city, where Daisy is going, all of that static and militaristic tension fades. At first she isn't thrilled in the least by her rustic accommodations, deflecting all invitations from young Isaac (Tom Holland) and the younger Piper (Harley Bird) to join them in the simple, innocent pleasures of nature.
Accustomed to the type of privilege that allows her to wallow in self-pity, giving far too much heed to the nattering voice of social conditioning in her head, Daisy shields herself with an air of victimized superiority, a defence that is breached by the strapping Edmond (George MacKay), eldest of this clan of humble British farmers.
With a mother working for a government preparing for war, the children are left to their own devices most of the time, under Edmond's loose supervision. Daisy's chilly disposition thaws in an idyllic summer of young love, the troubles of the outside world momentarily forgotten. Their tranquility is shattered when, in an incredibly ominous, well-executed scene, the aftershock of a massive explosion reaches the picnicking youngsters and a beautiful summer day is sucked away, replaced by the icy kisses of an unnatural snowfall.
Deciding their best course of action is to stick together, Daisy, Edmond, Isaac and Piper ignore evacuation notices, opting to fortify their barn and weather whatever comes. Needless to say, the war doesn't pass them by. In the harrowing, almost horribly surreal events that follow, Daisy is forced to redirect her neurotic discipline towards survival and trade in her natural pessimism for steadfast resolve.
Macdonald does a good job balancing the harsh facts of war with an intimate story of forced maturation. Thematically, the importance of allowing wounds the necessary time to heal pops up all over the narrative, most obviously as a hawk with a broken wing Edmond tends to. This kind of on-point symbolism edges towards mawkishness, as does a certain romantic musical refrain by composer Jon Hopkins. However, the sweetness isn't too cloying when taken alongside human horrors on the scale of those found in The Road.
Ambitious and emotional, if a little overly so, How I Live Now is an intense, well-acted and cinematically poetic film about growing up and learning to roll with life's unknowable punches.