An Ordinary Life – Ethel & Ernest

14 12 2016

ethel-and-ernest (Cloth Cat Animation - 2016)

What do you dream of? Do you dream of riding a Unicorn and battling the Troll King in the city of Colossus on the furthest edge of Saturn? If so, then you have misunderstood my question. When I ask what you dream of, I ask that in the meaning of, what do you foresee for yourself. Do you dream of a big mansion, lots of money, a gold-plated Rolls Royce and a pet Jaguar? That sounds like a pretty good dream for yourself and I wish you luck in your endeavors to achieve that, but is there anything wrong with a simpler life: a life that involves having your own house, a nice job, maybe a husband or wife, a nice little car and a kid to call your own? Well, given a recent example I recently discovered, I can see a lot of pleasantry in just living a nice long-lived ordinary life, seems quite nice.

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Released in 2016 by Cloth Cat Animation and Directed by Roger Mainwood; Ethel and Ernest is an animated adaptation of the Raymond Briggs graphic novel of the same name. Raymond Briggs is of course best known for his graphic novels including The Snowman, Father Christmas, Fungus the Bogeyman and When the Wind Blows, many of which have since been adapted further into films and TV shows. Ethel and Ernest follows the story of Briggs’s parents from when they began their courtship in the early 1920’s right up to their deaths in the 1970’s, along the way showing their incredible life through an ever-changing world, delivering their own experiences in some of history’s most notable moments.

ethel-and-ernest-book (Jonathan Cape - 1998)

The story begins with Ethel (Brenda Blethyn) working as a lady’s maid who over the period of a couple of days is spotted by a young man on a bike. After a few days the young man all nicely dressed arrives at Ethel’s work place and introduces himself as Ernest (Jim Broadbent). He invites her out on a date and after a few more dates, Ethel requests that she leaves her employ as a maid so that she may Marry Ernest. Her request is given, and the two marry, followed by getting a house together, and Ernest getting a job as a milkman. As time passes by, the two of them sit down into a normal living routine, with Ethel becoming a housewife and Ernest fascinated by the ever passing technological world, installs a radio and a cooker plus a few more home improvements to make it theirs. Outside of their lives, things are changing, Britain is on the brink of war with Germany, and people are out of work. While all this is going on, Ethel and Ernest conflict with one another due to their respective beliefs, with Ernest acknowledging his working class life, while Ethel believes that she is more middle class and up. Eventually Ethel is treated with the birth of a son they name Raymond (Luke Treadaway), but giving birth was a real strain on her and is told that it’s best that they don’t have another.

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Britain engages with Germany as World War 2 starts, and Raymond is sent to live with Aunty Flo (Gillian Hanna) and Aunty Betty (Pam Ferris) in the countryside as he is evacuated with thousands of other children. Broken hearted at home without Raymond in their lives, Ethel and Ernest plod on with Raymond taking another job as a fireman during the Blitz Bombings. The two of them erect both a Morrison and an Anderson bomb shelter, and are privileged with seeing Raymond in the countryside and have him home one weekend, although he and Ernest narrowly miss an attack from a Doodlebug. With the war over, the family returns to normal, with Raymond going to grammar school and Ernest seeing improvement in his work load, although the two cannot stop bickering with the election of a Labour government and Churchill being kicked out of office. As Raymond grows up, he begins to do things very different to his parents that they just don’t understand, such as his desire to go to Arts School, while his parents can’t see much of a job coming out of it. Raymond grows his hair out, although Ethel continues to press a comb onto him. Eventually Raymond meets a girl called Jean (Karyn Claydon), who unfortunately is not able to provide grandparents to Raymond’s parents. The two of them get a house in the countryside that Ethel considers to be a dump.

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As time passes by and the world steadily advances further, life for Ethel and Ernest begins to slow down. Ernest retires from his job as a milkman and Raymond gets a job as a teacher. Ethel and Ernest take in a more quiet life, but Ethel’s health begins to deteriorate, and as time passes by begins to forget things, even those closest to her. Eventually Ethel dies in hospital, leaving Ernest to fend for himself. After some time goes by, Ernest too dies. Back at his parents’ home; Raymond makes note of a tree in their garden, one he planted when he was just a boy.

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Ethel and Ernest is a rather pleasant film which at first does not really present itself as a film, more a sequence of short films spanning the life of two very ordinary people. At first it’s like an animated slide show, and one I felt presented the story of these two-bit by bit, maybe frame by frame or chapter by chapter. The film however is at this point just starting its engine, as when life settles down, the Drama begins. At first these are two gentle lovers just enjoying life as it can be, but now they face the prospect of actually having to live together, and what we discover is that they are two polar opposites. They share dreams and desires for the future but like many of the time cannot see how much life will change ahead of them, or how quickly it is enacted. While it is very pleasant though, the film is somewhat tragic, as it ends the only way life can, in the Death of these two people, and how their life affects those around them at that time. But in that though we are presented with a cold hard fact of the knowledge that life must come to an end and how important it is that we don’t waste it, it’s one chance in only one chance. The film though while ending like this however reminds us that even when these two people passed on, that in life, although maybe not absolutely perfect, they still lived an extraordinary life, one that was filled right to the brim. Maybe not the most glamorous or exciting, but definitely a positive life, and shows that no matter your standing, class or background, a good life can still be had.

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The film’s story I find is very similar to The Wind Rises, as though while in essence it’s just a story of the parents of Raymond Briggs, it also tells a very broad story of the growth of England from post World War One right through the tumultuous years of World War Two and the progression of life luxuries beyond that. It does this in a very unique way to. I have seen lots of documentaries in the past regarding what happened in World War 2, but most of these have taken the form of talking about the front line, the enemy, the Battle of Britain, the blitz, other countries and the evacuation of children; however I have not ever (I think) seen a documentary or presentation of the life lived by those in London during this time. I am not saying that said things have not been done before, but they do seem pretty rare. Here, this film really shows that with mentions of the Anderson Bomb Shelters and the like, to mentions of life for those working to keep London built and even the raids of Doodlebugs. It is a very nice way to tell a story but also presents information of what England was like that at that time.

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While all this is going on of course, we get a real glimpse of the lives of Ethel and Ernest. The film does have some great cast members and features some cameos from people at the time presented in their original format, but this film really does work to show us what these two were like by making them the front-runner of every scene. But while it may be an idyllic life for those of a similar situation, there is a minor level of conflict between the two. Ernest for example is very much a working class man. He works hard because he knows he has to and is good at his job. He loves Ethel a lot, and even uses his manual labour skills to good use in improving their lives in any way he can; he is very much a working class hero. Ethel meanwhile comes from a more upper class background, although this is only shown in what she used to do for a living. This background though very much impacts her way of thinking, and though while their lives appear very much in similar vain to that of the average working class family, she genuinely believes she is not Working Class. This conflict between the two remains throughout, and while although this causes tension between the two-way of thoughts, they are less hostile, more just ways of thinking. In reality they are two very different people and share no real commonality in belief. This continues further when Raymond grows up, starts acting more like a teenager, a rebel against the old-fashioned views and respects. This causes Ethel to look at her son differently as he changes like a changed world, growing his hair out, not looking for a normal ‘job’, going down a different route, not buying a ‘house’ and of course not being able to provide her with a grandchild. It really shows the change in respects over time as though back when they were young; Raymond’s choices would not have stood up to anyone, but now the world is more free it goes against those older respects and really delivers home in a very presentable and obvious way the difference between the old and young generations.

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Being based on the works of Raymond Briggs, the film strives to present its artwork and look in the same style as his book and his personal drawing style. The film looks very traditional in its animation, although shows some points where it nearly leaps off the page. It is 3D shaded but not flat 2D either. The animation is very fluid and very detailed, and within a few seconds really draws your attention in as it’s nice and clear but also very fun in presenting its information as well as world and characters. One thing thought that really stood out for me though was how it used 2 different styles of artwork to portray life and death. You see, when the film is playing, all the images are nice and colourful, nice and bright, as if to show their life and how easily they just jump off from the page. But then as the film continues, when it presents a moment of death, the style changes; while it still carries all other forms of life in the same style, death is a more static, 2D image, that is very detailed still, but the life is completely withdrawn, like they who they once were is gone and the body; like the drawing, has no life.

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Ethel and Ernest has an interesting use of music, as for the most part there is pretty much no soundtrack, but that is in to say that one has not really been provided, but not there is no music either. No, instead the film uses a lot of old-fashioned and well known pieces from respected composers of the time using popular music of the current time the story is in. One piece though that has sort of been used as a standing point of at least some form of a soundtrack is that of a piece by Paul McCartney called In the Blink of an Eye. I am not really all that a fan of McCartney, but this piece of music is a nicely fitting piece. It sounds very progressive in its tune and presents other animations to mind as they pop into your brain. It sounds very British and really helps to create a vision of the passage of time in British lands and fits nicely with the images of this film. It’s progressive but also retrospective and just nicely fits in there as when the credits roll on they show how beautiful a life it was for Ethel and Ernest and really how well it was lived.

Ethel and Ernest really is such a pleasant film. It tells a nice story of an average family, not an average family who happened to be spies or anything spectacular on an action like scale, just an ordinary family living a pretty ordinary life. It tells a story of the inner conflicts and opinions of married life, plus also tells a story of Britain and the changing of attitudes and respects with the passing of time. It is nicely animated showing stark contrasts between life and death, creating some really humorous moments and at the same time bringing to life and telling the real life biography of two amazing people. Ethel and Ernest is a real family drama and a really pleasant film to watch, easily a future classic, one that families can (and probably will) continue to enjoy watching with one another in years to come.

GENEPOOL

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2 responses

20 12 2016
mostlyacousticsteve

A great write-up. I remember “When the windblows” when it first came out in the 1980s and many people feared a nuclear attack. I should try to get a copy really…

21 12 2016
numb3r5s

I have yet to see/read that. Have been wanting to for over a year now.

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