Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Roger Mainwood
Stars: The voices of Jim Broadbent, Brenda Blethyn, Pam Ferris, Roger Allam, June Brown
LFF screening 16th October 2016
Released 28th October 2016
The most British of animations had its world premiere today at the London Film Festival in the shape of Roger Mainwood’s ‘Ethel and Ernest’.
It comes from the eloquent pen of Raymond Briggs and it’s as personal as it gets – the story of his mum and dad. And that’s pretty much it. How they met when she was a ladies’ maid with aspirations and he was a milkman. How son Raymond arrived, was evacuated to the countryside during World War II, while his parents lived through the London Blitz. And how the lives of all three of them changed during the 60s and 70s, through to his parents’ respective deaths, both in the same year.
It starts with Briggs himself although, if you don’t recognise him at first, you’re just watching an elderly man making himself a cup of tea. Until he starts to draw his parents and the penny drops. His voiceover observes wryly that Ethel and Ernest would probably have said he got their story wrong, but that’s what parents do. It’s not his only gentle little dig at them, but the film is still a very affectionate portrait of them through the eyes of their only child. His mother’s social aspirations, her ignorance of the world around her and her use of “lovely” to describe anything and everything. His father’s zest for life, generosity and devotion to his family, coupled with left wing ideals that his wife never really understood.
As the story of their relationship, it’s full of love and warmth in the old fashioned sense. They were the proverbial devoted couple: sex is hardly ever mentioned and we see little more than a hug, kiss or holding hands. Yet somehow they manage to produce a son. They live in the same house throughout their marriage, complete with its little garden which, by the end, acquires a pear tree. As Raymond says wistfully, “I grew that from a pip” and we actually see that little seedling sprouting in a pot when he’s a youngster. There is a fourth member of the family, a black cat who adopts them in typical moggy fashion and loyally stays with them right to the very end. After Ethel’s death, it touchingly drapes itself around Ernest’s shoulders and sleeps with him on the bed at night.
The film is also a piece of social history, showing the effects on World War II on civilians – air raids, doodlebugs, shelters in the garden – as well as post-war life, with the continuation of rationing, Raymond passing the 11-Plus and going to grammar school. Other domestic minutiae tell their own stories, from the arrival of their first telephone and their first TV set, with its small, black and white picture and intermissions between programmes. Linking it all together is Ernest exclaiming over the latest newspaper headlines: a touch clumsy given the delicacy of the drawing and the story but, in its context, credible enough.
The characters are voiced by stellar British talent, with Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn leading the way: they’re perfect matches for the devoted couple and pull off the neat trick of almost imperceptibly aging their voices over time. Other familiar voices include June Brown as Ernest’s disreputable step-mother, Virginia McKenna as Ethel’s employer at the start of the film and Roger Allam as the doctor who helps deliver Raymond into the world.
So, to use Ethel’s favourite word, it’s a “lovely” film. It’s released in cinemas at the end of this month but, in truth, it doesn’t really belong there. Its intimacy demands a smaller screen: a large one creates an uncomfortable and unwanted distance between the audience and the story. The Christmas TV schedules would be the ideal home but, if you can’t wait that long, a small cinema is the next best thing.