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It’s commonly thought that artists seldom make stories about happy, stable marriages because where’s the drama in that? Ethel & Ernest, a deeply affecting feature-length animated film, disproves that assumption by unfurling an emotionally rich story about the lifelong marital love affair between two kindly, modest people living in an inconspicuous corner of suburban England. Adapted from the illustrated book author-artist Raymond Briggs (The Snowman) wrote about his own parents, this quiet, dignified work shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a niche audience domestically given Briggs’ near-saintly reputation in the U.K., especially among older viewers. Families willing to think outside the usual cartoon boxes may also be drawn in.
Beginning in 1928, when the title couple first meet, and then running through until (spoiler alert) their deaths in the early 1970s, the story covers over 40 years of marriage, the birth of their son and future biographer Raymond, and many world- and nation-shaping events, seen always through the eyes of Ethel and Ernest. In fact, one of the best things about the film is the way it effortlessly incorporates history and shows how it shapes the lives of “ordinary” people, from the rise of Hitler through to the Blitz during WWII to the founding of national healthcare and the welfare state after the war.
That strategy or refracting massive changes through the prism of one little household will seem particularly familiar to those raised with the 1982 graphic novel and 1986 animated film of Briggs’ When the Wind Blows, his indelible parable about how a pair of elderly, average citizens cope with the onset of nuclear winter. “I expect there may be a temporary containment of supplies,” says elderly Jim Blogg towards the end of that story, as he and his wife Hilda lie dying on their sofas, expecting help to arrive at any moment from the emergency services. It’s impossible not to hear an echo of the Bloggs in the portrait here of Ethel and Ernest Briggs (voiced by Brenda Blethyn and Jim Broadbent, respectively), as they express a similar faith in, say, Mr. Churchill to win the war or that nice Mr. Atlee for his wisdom in nationalizing coal production. Indeed, Raymond Briggs has said that he modelled Hilda and Jim on Ethel and Ernest.
Both from working-class backgrounds — Ethel came from a brood of 11 children, three of whom died either at birth or in early childhood — the couple catch each other’s eyes when Ernest cycles past the house where she’s working as a ladies’ maid for two stuffy spinsters. Confident, perhaps even a little bit cocky in the nicest possible way, the young man comes knocking on the door with flowers to ask Ethel out to “the pictures” with him, even though she’s five years older than him and already over 30.
Before long they’re married, and rhapsodizing over the house they’re just about to buy for the enormous sum of £850, a two-bedroom terraced home in South London with its own back garden, four windows in the bedroom and, best of all, indoor plumbing. He takes a job as a milkman and she stays home to raise their only child, Raymond (voiced by Luke Treadaway as an adult). After a difficult birth, the doctor advises them against ever having a second child, lest Ethel dies in labor.
And so, the years pass, with a normal allotment of joys, disappointments and minor domestic arguments. The war is hard on them, especially after the house is damaged by bombing nearby and Ernest sees appalling horrors through his work as a volunteer firemen, keeping the city from burning down. But they keep calm and carry on, managing even to survive Raymond’s bohemian phase in the 1960s and his refusal to comb his hair. The couple’s genuine love for one another endures, and when dementia steals away Ethel’s memories and health, viewers will find themselves mourning along with her family. One way to explain what the film is like to non-British viewers who aren’t familiar with Briggs’ oeuvre is to say it’s like that five minutes in Pixar’s Up that summarizes the entirety of Carl and Ellie’s marriage, but spun out over feature-length, but with hardly any loss of emotional heft. Sure, it’s a tiny bit sentimental sometimes, but only just that little bit, and given how soppy the British can be about subjects, this is remarkably restrained.
Animation director Peter Dodd and art director Robin Shaw ensure the pencilly, colorful furriness of Briggs’ original illustrations are honored and brought to life, especially his very expressive characters with their blobby noses and tufty thatches of hair. The computer animation deployed to render planes flying and cars in motion jars a little at first with the lo-tech, traditional look of animation elsewhere, but eventually it starts to look all of a piece.
Production companies: A Universal Pictures, BBC, BFI presentation of a Lupus Films production, in association with Ethel & Ernest Productions, Melusine Productions, Cloth Cat Animation
Cast: Raymond Briggs, Brenda Blethyn, Jim Broadbent, Luke Treadaway, Roger Allam, Pam Ferris, Virginia McKenna, Peter Wight, June Brown, Simon Day, Alex Jordan, Harry Collett, Duncan Wisbey, Gillian Hanna, Karyn Claydon
Director-screenwriter: Roger Mainwood, based on the graphic novel by Raymond Briggs
Producers: Camilla Deakin, Ruth Fielding, Stephan Roelants
Executive producers: Raymond Briggs, Robbie Little, Adam Partridge, Matthew Read, Jon Rennie, Ben Roberts, Natascha Wharton
Animation director: Peter Dodd
Art director: Robin Shaw
Editor: Richard Overall
Music: Carl Davis
Sales: The Little Film Company
Not rated, 94 minutes
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