British children’s author and illustrator Raymond Briggs has seen a number of his works turned into animations – most famously that perennial Christmas television treat The Snowman (1982). Yet there has always been a sombre side to his work: notably When the Wind Blows (1986), a horrifying look at Britain under nuclear attack seen through the eyes of an ageing couple, Jim and Hilda Bloggs.
While the Bloggs were inspired by his parents, he focused on their real lives in his 1999 book, Ethel & Ernest – now arriving as an animated feature.
A biographical look at his mother and father, it begins as Ernest, a cheery milkman with socialist ideals, meets lady’s maid Ethel. After courting, they get married and move into a small house in a south London suburb, where their only child, Raymond, is born.
Ethel and Ernest are voiced by Brenda Blethyn and Jim Broadbent – both Mike Leigh alumni who seem born to play these roles – and as the lives of these two very ordinary folk unfold, extraordinary events take place around them. At first, it’s the radio that keeps us attuned to world events, as Adolf Hitler is made German chancellor.
When England declares war with Germany, however, Ethel and Ernest must face realities: bomb shelters, evacuating Raymond to a Dorset farm, the Blitz. One scene sees Ernest, a fireman during the war, return ashen-faced. “A kiddie … all in bits,” he says, bursting into tears. Even on Victory in Europe Day, as the Briggs’ street celebrates, one man stands aside, mourning the loss of his son.
It’s this unsparing absence of sentimentality that truly hits home. In the post-war years of rationing, young Raymond (voiced by Luke Treadaway) goes to art college, eventually bringing home his wife-to-be, Jean. He later has to explain to his mother that they may never have children because Jean suffers from schizophrenia. Like most events in Ethel & Ernest, such issues are never dwelt on, but linger in the air, building to an unbearably sad and poignant climax.
Directed by Roger Mainwood, who has worked on many Briggs adaptations, the hand-drawn animation is as tender and gentle as the characters and their simple yet beautiful love story. But, like Briggs, it never soft-soaps pain, illness and death. As Paul McCartney’s new song In the Blink of an Eye plays over the end credits, you’re left to ponder the fleeting nature of life itself.
Ethel & Ernest will be screened on February 19 at AMC Pacific Place, in Admiralty, and February 21 at Broadway Cinematheque, in Yau Ma Tei, as part of the European Union Film Festival 2017. Producer Camilla Deakin will attend a Q&A session after the screening on February 19.