Despite some clichés, the atmosphere and emotional twists make How I Live Now captivating.
Based on the novel by Meg Rosoff, How I Live Now presents us with a dystopian love story in which beautiful cinematography and spine-chilling action are juxtaposed.
Daisy, from New York, is sent off to the UK by her neglectful father to stay with her cousins, whom she has never met. Piper, the youngest, tries to turn her goat into a unicorn, while Isaac can drive a 4×4 at the age of 14, and Eddy, the eldest, speaks with his eyes rather than his mouth.
The backdrop for this composite family is the British countryside, pastoral and green. However, it is slowly being enveloped by the ever-encroaching World War Three. Their mission is to stay in their country house, which is thwarted when armed forces separate them, taking the girls to a ‘safe home’, and the boys to a military camp. We are never sure which side is the ‘good’ side, or even who the enemy is – this deliberate obscurity certainly parallels today’s politics.
A seemingly never-ending search renders Daisy and Piper worn down, facing a gruesomely misogynistic enemy in the forests while they search for the two boys. Without giving too much away, what follows in the film is heart wrenching, leaving the family broken.
The genius of this film lies in the direction. Kevin MacDonald, who also directed The Last King of Scotland, manages to create an atmosphere both eerie and beautiful: eerie, because we can almost smell death in the air and we can sense so strongly the ensuing war; beautiful, because despite all this, the characters manage to find solace in each other. The rolling fields and scenic waterfalls of the Welsh countryside, where How I Live Now was filmed, make the torment to which these characters are subjected even more painful and emotional.
Adding to this sense of atmosphere is the poignant soundtrack. Bat For Lashes’ Natasha Khan and producer Jon Hopkins create the haunting Garden’s Heart– its slow tempo is like a beating heart, appearing at the point in the film when Daisy and Eddy are separated. This ambient music colours the film with a sense of longing for home, for the audience as much as the characters.
Despite this great soundtrack and cinematography, I felt the portrayal of a love story was clichéd at times: the speed with which Daisy and Eddy fell in love during the swimming scene was unrealistic and idealised. In contrast, the fact that these two lovers are cousins brings the unnerving matter of incest into question. I found the sex scenes detracted from the stillness achieved elsewhere in the film.
I found Eddy’s character less convincing than Daisy’s. While Daisy captivates us with her exquisite eyes and mysterious guile, Eddy is less attractive in both his facial features and his uninteresting character.
However, the atmosphere created by the direction in How I Live Now overcame any small problems I had with the characterisation. The speed with which brutal acts like infanticide take place leaves you in such a state of shock that the beautiful scenery or haunting melodies that follow are more effective; as a viewer, you are left drained and as emotional as the characters themselves.