Adapted from Meg Rosoff’s young adult novel, How I Live Now (2013) is director Kevin Macdonald’s second narrative film in a row to feature young stars traipsing through the British countryside. The first was The Eagle (2011), as Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell went in search of a lost Roman standard; this time Macdonald’s film looks not to the distant past but the near future. Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is an American teenager holidaying with her cousins when a war of unknown scale breaks out. Stranded in rural England, Daisy starts to warm to her cousins, especially the quiet Edmund (Bafta Rising Star nominee George MacKay).
In contrast to the majority of the present wave of young adult adaptations currently filing through cinemas, How I Live Now limits its genre elements to the setting alone. The vision of wartime Britain features no fantastical or speculative aspects, and tying the film’s perspective so closely to Daisy’s keeps the exact reach and cause of the conflict mysterious. The romance is believable, not belaboured, and mostly serves as a motivator to keep Daisy pushing forward. The character’s development from being a withdrawn girl into a mature young woman is anchored by a strong lead turn by Ronan. MacKay as Edmund and Tom Holland as Isaac are both good, but are overshadowed by Harley Bird as little sister Piper.
Red-haired and rambunctious, Piper is a character who could easily have remained on the periphery of the narrative if not cast so well, but Bird makes her a significant presence in Daisy’s story; buoyant yet also vulnerable, she reflects many of Daisy’s own insecurities. In terms of aesthetics, few in contemporary film photograph Britain as well as Macdonald does. Whilst Roman-era tale The Eagle presented our green and pleasant land as a painterly, ethereal dreamscape, How I Live Now instead opts for a more natural look. Nevertheless, Macdonald makes the world around the teenagers glow and dim with the emotional state of this near-post-apocalyptic drama.
Occasional moments of disconcerting surrealism grow from the organic landscape too: early on, a catastrophic event covers the woods around Edmund’s house in a layer of thick ash. Macdonald’s How I Live Now is an intense, impressive drama that is wholly committed to a bleakness and reality beyond anything else in its genre. Blissful, care-free romance is balanced with nightmarish, gruesome violence in a way that feels brutally real and incredibly immediate. Aided by a dreamy score of strings and guitar from Jon Hopkins, a film that could have been overwrought manages instead to pack a significant emotional punch.