The cinematic adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel, Ethel & Ernest tells the story of the artist’s parents – their marriage, their lives, their triumphs and tragedies. It opens with a brief interview with Briggs where he briefly describes how he remembers his parents and their relatively undramatic relationship. What follows is the tale of the two, from their first meeting to their last. It’s all told in the familiar, comforting aesthetic of Briggs’ illustration which always brings with it a nostalgic fondness. Beginning in 1928, we join the couple on their first date and then through the decades to follow, and all the challenges they bring with them. Most prominently we join them through the second world war – a depiction of citizen life during this time more shocking and detailed than any I’ve ever seen on film before. I wasn’t expecting an animation about marriage to be as brutal and eye-opening as Ethel & Ernest turned out to be. I’ve been meaning to purchase the graphic novel for several years – intrigued by the romance and humility I took from its appearance. Not only is the story as poignant and intimate as I’d hope but it also took me surprise. Brimming with almost as much sorrow as it is joy, Ethel & Ernest reminded me to literally not judge a book by its cover. The snob within me was put to shame – scolded for forgetting the devastating truths that animation can deliver. We spend the majority of the film in the comfort of the Briggs’ home, witnessing them as joyous newlywed, middle aged parents, resilient citizens living through the Blitz and eventual pensioners struggling to understand the new, fast-paced world around them.
Throughout the film the family wireless interrupts daily life, delivering historic messages we now know well. History frames Ethel & Ernest but it’s mainly all backdrop. It is the mediocrity of daily life at the forefront – the conversations, the relationships, the struggles and the victories that ultimately form the tapestry of our time on this planet. Jim Broadbent and the exceptional Brenda Blethyn voice the central duo – each so simultaneously recognisable but invisible as the complex husband and wife. As the world grows ever more unstable around them, the couple’s love and companionship remains solid and consistent. Avoiding all things twee, their son isn’t afraid to display the miseries that are experienced in everyday life. The couple vary greatly in political stance, they bicker, they are grumpy and they suffer their fair share of disappointments. Ethel & Ernest admirably tackles generational conflict too – showing tensions forming between Raymond and his mother over the years. There are also several striking moments in which the language used is so politically incorrect by today’s standards that audience members around me gasped; language of such a different time that it feels like foreign dialect. Nothing is sugarcoated in this bittersweet exploration of the most ordinary of families. The bold honesty with which Ethel & Ernest carries itself is astonishing. As much a celebration as it is an artistic critique of times gone by – be it of cultural attitudes, mindsets or traditions – Ethel & Ernest is a triumphant tribute to a marriage, a mindset and the magic of the mundane memories we all make along the way.
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