×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Toronto Film Review: ‘How I Live Now’

Held together by a forceful performance from Saoirse Ronan, director Kevin Macdonald's adaptation of Meg Rosoff's novel makes up in emotional immediacy what it lacks in broad dramatic sweep.

With:

Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay, Tom Holland, Harley Bird, Anna Chancellor, Danny McEvoy.

The outbreak of World War III is viewed through the narrow but steadily captivating lens of an American teenager dwelling abroad in “How I Live Now,” a story of young love that quickens into a harrowing survival thriller. Held together by a forceful performance from the ever-resourceful Saoirse Ronan, director Kevin Macdonald’s uneven but passionate adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s prize-winning 2004 novel wisely sticks to its protagonist’s p.o.v. while avoiding a longer view of the calamitous events around her, making up in emotional immediacy what it lacks in broad dramatic sweep. Likely to be perceived as too violent for younger audiences but too goopily romantic for older arthouse-goers, the Magnolia release reps a tricky marketing proposition that will require ample critical support when it bows Stateside Nov. 8.

The film’s opening stretch is not especially promising, insofar as it seems determined to shackle the viewer to the most unpleasant lead character imaginable. That would be Daisy (Ronan), a New York teenager who, estranged from her immediate family, has come to spend the summer with her cousins in the English countryside. First seen arriving at Heathrow in leave-me-alone shades and headphones, Daisy proves hostile and stubborn from the get-go, rebuffing the warm welcomes of 14-year-old Isaac (Tom Holland) and his talkative younger sister, Piper (Harley Bird), though she regards their quiet, handsome older brother, Edmond (George MacKay), with almost grudging curiosity. In an early tipoff of what’s to come, the nominal parent of the household, Daisy’s Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor), spends almost all her time in Geneva as part of ongoing international peace talks, while TV news reports of bombings elsewhere on the continent suggest a world quickly sliding into turmoil.

Daisy’s company is not made much more bearable by the incessant interior monologue we hear on the soundtrack, a constant stream of self-improvement tips such as “Step out of your comfort zone” and “Take risks.” Slowly but surely, she learns to do just that as her cousins — often accompanied by young friend Joe (Danny McEvoy) — wear down her defenses, bring out her inner sunshine, and introduce her to the pleasures of their blissfully unsupervised existence. At times resembling a coed version of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, they spend much of their time wandering the countryside and swimming in a nearby lake; as vibrantly lensed by Franz Lustig, it’s a backdrop wild and romantic enough that Daisy and Edmond soon fall in love.

It’s during one such outdoor idyll that everything changes: Time seems to stand still as the kids hear a dull, distant rumble, followed by a sudden flurry of what initially look like snowflakes. Haunting and grimly poetic, the scene works because Macdonald (directing from a script by three writers) so scrupulously adheres to his characters’ restricted vantage, allowing the audience to share in the confusion and terror of suddenly being caught up in events beyond their understanding. Eventually, of course, it becomes clear what has happened: Terrorists have bombed London and martial law has been declared, setting in motion a chain of events that will reach even into their woodland refuge, tearing their fragile family unit apart.

From there, “How I Live Now” shifts into full-on disaster-movie mode as violent circumstances rip Daisy and Piper away from the boys and send them to London, where they are put to work at a labor camp. If we never get a complete picture of exactly what’s going on in the streets around them, let alone the world beyond Blighty, it’s a limitation that nonetheless dovetails with the film’s dramatically fixed perspective, as Macdonald wisely serves up a few fascinating, plausible details — the cold plates of spam and vegetables that pass for dinner; the tablets that must be used to disinfect all drinking water following threats of mass contamination — and allows our minds to fill in the rest.

Soon the story morphs yet again, as Daisy and Piper go on the run and encounter obstacles that bring to mind Cate Shortland’s recent youth-in-wartime-peril drama “Lore,” achieving moments of sharp, bristling tension as well as one grisly apotheosis-of-war-style tableau. Perhaps the film’s most obvious flaw is that Daisy’s fierce determination, pushing her to ever more desperate survival tactics, hinges primarily on her longing to be reunited with Edmond, a twist that may strike some viewers as naive and sentimental; at the same time, there’s something admirable about how unapologetically the film embraces its protagonist, moony teenage romanticism and all. It’s also clear that Daisy’s makeshift family unit was something special indeed, and there’s nothing weak or naive about her desire to salvage it, even if it means a life-or-death journey.

The role of Daisy likely wouldn’t have worked with a less capable actress at the helm, and Ronan, whose recent performances in films like “Hanna” and “The Host” have proven her willing to get her hands dirty, gives flesh, ferocity and weight to the character’s many transformations, from sullen ingrate to loving cousin, from passionate lover to Katniss Everdeen-style heroine. The other roles have been conceived along much thinner lines, although MacKay has a nice, watchful presence as the somewhat idealized love interest (he can tame hawks!) and Holland, so good in “The Impossible,” brings some of that pluck and energy to his scenes here.

Macdonald does crisp, propulsive work in conjunction with editor Jinx Godfrey, while Jacqueline Abrahams’ production design makes the most of the film’s limited resources and intimate scale. Sound work is meticulous.

Toronto Film Review: 'How I Live Now'

Reviewed at Wilshire screening room, Beverly Hills, Aug. 20, 2013. (In Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations.) Running time: 101 MIN.

Production:

(U.K.) A Magnolia Pictures (in U.S.) release of a Film4 and BFI presentation, in association with Protagonist and Entertainment One, of a Cowboy Films and Passion Pictures production, in association with Prospect Entertainment. (International sales: Protagonist Pictures, London.) Produced by Andrew Ruhemann, John Battsek, Charles Steel, Alasdair Flind. Executive producers, Tessa Ross, Robert Walak, Piers Wenger, Nigel Williams.

Crew:

Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Screenplay, Jeremy Brock, Penelope Skinner, Tony Grisoni, based on the novel by Meg Rosoff. Camera (color), Franz Lustig; editor, Jinx Godfrey; music, Jon Hopkins; music supervisor, Abi Leland; production designer, Jacqueline Abrahams; art director, Astrid Sieben; set decorator, Philippa Hart; costume designer, Jane Petrie; sound (Dolby Digital), Nigel Albermaniche; sound designer, Glenn Freemantle; re-recording mixers, Ian Tapp, Niv Adiri; special effects supervisor, Chris Reynolds; visual effects supervisor, Simon Hughes; visual effects, Union Visual Effects; stunt coordinator, Jo McLaren; line producer, Rosa Romero; associate producers, Jeremy Brock, Nicole Stott; assistant director, Adam Lock; casting, Nina Gold.

With:

Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay, Tom Holland, Harley Bird, Anna Chancellor, Danny McEvoy.

More Film

  • Noah CentineoNickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, Show,

    Kids’ Choice Awards 2019: JoJo Siwa, Noah Centineo Take on Bullying

    This year’s Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards was full of positivity and encouragement to be yourself. DJ Khaled, known for his upbeat mantras, hosted the 32nd annual awards ceremony alongside JoJo Siwa at USC’s Galen center. Siwa accepted the award for favorite social music star. Siwa said in her acceptance speech, “I get hated on every [...]

  • Us Scriptwriter and Film-maker Larry Cohen

    Larry Cohen, Cult Horror Writer-Director of 'It's Alive,' Dies at 77

    Larry Cohen, best known for his work as a B-movie producer and director in the ’70s and his later work in screenwriting, has died. He was 77. Cohen’s friend, actor and publicist Shade Rupe, confirmed the news, which was announced in a post to Cohen’s official Facebook page. Rupe said Cohen died in Los Angeles [...]

  • Captain Marvel

    Box Office: 'Captain Marvel' Shatters $900 Million Milestone

    Brie Larson’s “Captain Marvel” continues to do heroic business. In its latest box office milestone, the female-fronted superhero tentpole zoomed past $900 million in ticket sales worldwide. “Captain Marvel” brought in a mighty $87 million globally this weekend, including $52 million from international territories. It has now generated $589 million overseas for a global haul [...]

  • Us - Lupita Nyong’o - cr:

    Box Office: Jordan Peele's 'Us' Stuns With $70 Million Opening Weekend

    Talk about scary good. Universal’s “Us,” the second directorial effort from Jordan Peele, pulled off a stunning debut, generating $70 million from 3,741 North American locations. That haul is enough to land it the second-best opening weekend of the year behind Disney’s “Captain Marvel” ($153 million). The psychological thriller about a family confronted by a [...]

  • SHAZAM

    Film Review: 'Shazam!'

    In “Shazam!,” Zachary Levi brings off something so winning it’s irresistible. He plays a square-jawed, rippling-muscled man of might, with a cheesy Day-Glo lighting bolt affixed to his chest, who projects an insanely wholesome and old-fashioned idea of what a superhero can be. But he’s also playing a breathless teenage kid on the inside, and [...]

  • WGA Agents Contract Tug of War

    Showrunners, Screenwriters Back WGA in Agency Battle, Sides to Meet Again Tuesday

    More than 750 showrunners and screenwriters have backed the WGA’s battle against talent agencies taking packaging fees and other changes to the rules governing the business relationship between agents and writers. The letter of support issued Saturday is significant because of the immense clout showrunners and prominent screenwriters possess in Hollywood. Several showrunners had recently [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content