Jimmy Murakami’s adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel When the Wind Blows is a moving tale of a nuclear holocaust and its impact on the lives of an ordinary married couple of old age pensioners.
As mad as the Trump era is for anyone who grew up or lived through the 1980s there’s a sense of preparation. In that benighted decade, we danced to Frankie Goes to Hollywood singing about two tribes going to war; we watched Threads on television and saw the women of Greenham Common protest the American ICBMs every night on the news. Even our reading carried with it the chill of the nuclear winter. Raymond Briggs had already become a firm favourite with his Father Christmas grumbling about the blooming snow and having to use an outdoor lavatory and Fungus the Bogeyman, a working class proto-Shrek. Although drawn in a similar format, When the Wind Blows felt like a step into much more adult-oriented territory.
Murakami’s version stays largely faithful to Briggs’ work. Jim and Ethel Blogs – voiced by the British acting royal couple Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft – live an idyllic existence, in a beautiful little cottage deep in the English countryside. Theirs is a life worn smooth by habit, and founded on ordinary decency. The world intrudes rarely, but a worsening international crisis – closely monitored by Jim from newspapers in the local library and Radio 4 on the wireless – threatens to escalate into all out nuclear conflict.
Jim and Ethel feel cheerfully confident they can weather the storm, armed as they are with a fond nostalgia for the Second World War and government leaflets on ‘How to Survive a Nuclear Attack.’ Before you can say ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’, Jim has the doors off their hinges and is preparing an ‘inner core or refuge’ in accordance with the guidelines. He paints the windows white to reflect the blast and Ethel puts out a note for the milkman to bring more supplies against the shortages that will surely occur in the aftermath of the impact.
Within the limits of the story, Murakami does his best to innovate and push the boundaries of animation. His backgrounds are frequently live action models with the animation blended over and he enlivens the film following his characters on their various bouts of reminiscing or fantasising. At times, he uses stock footage. The dropping of the bomb and the ensuing mayhem is brilliantly captured, visually echoing the films of the H-Bomb tests on the Bikini Atoll.
The film has inevitably dated in some ways. David Bowie’s title song doesn’t particularly fit the film and some of the flights of fancy have winsome air to them. But it is with the aftermath of the bomb that the main tragedy of the film arrives. The inadequacy of their dutiful preparations, or indeed any preparations is abundantly clear to the viewer even as Ethel and Jim maintain their stoic chin-up attitude. The pile-on of indignities and suffering and the sheer madness of it is genuinely moving and angering.
Given the size of the threat nuclear weapons pose – especially in the current climate – its surprising so few works of cinema have explored the subject. Almost as if there is a communal desire to look the other way. When the Wind Blows refuses to do that. It is a moving and shocking depiction of the actual human cost such a conflict would bring.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty