The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
How I Live Now

Written by Matt Denny.

Photo from the article How I Live Now opens with a densely layered soundscape. A proliferation of a single female voice aggressively repeating phrases that seem culled from the pages of glossy magazines and self-help books. The phrases are hints and tips for gaining control over one’s mind and body. Running through this susurration of glib diet tips and pop psychology is a particularly sinister and vehement refrain, an expression of physical disgust at one’s own body. The voiceover is replaced by the rebellious strands of Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra’s ‘Do it with a Rockstar’ and the film proper opens.

How I Live Now is a film about control and freedom. The film does not present this opposition simplistically; neither position is straightforwardly ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and the film takes a complex, ambiguous stance towards both states.

This thematic concern is unsurprising when one considers How I Live Now is essentially an apocalyptic teen movie. Both genres deal with discipline/freedom, order/chaos, civilisation/anarchy, rules/rebellion. Of course Ferris Beuller skipping school to star in his very own parade is chaos of a slightly magnitude to Ferris proclaiming himself Cannibal-King of the post-nuclear wastelands of Chicago, but it really is only a question of magnitude; the central oppositions remains unchanged. How I Live Now makes use of these variations in magnitude to explore differing forms of freedom and control: from self, to parental, to state.

Returning to the opening of the film, the opposition of control and rebellion is demonstrated in the contrast between the opening voiceover and music-video style opening credits. The music, as mentioned, is in truly rebellious mode, and compliments the graffiti-style credits smeared across the image. The images are jittery, handheld, and slightly overexposed, suggesting a low-fi amateur video aesthetic. There is a tension between the jouisance of the camera, editing and music, and the images depicted: they portray the gruelling process of airport security, a pretty straightforward visual metaphor for overprotective and restrictive order. At one point an official asks Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) to remove her headphones, and the soundtrack shifts to indicate the headphones as the diegetic source of the music. This figures Daisy as a point of conflict between rules and rebellion. Moving seamlessly through the systems of order, Daisy’s music provides a private world of rebellion untouched by the restrictive external system.

Daisy’s rebellion is also born out in her costuming. She’s all bleached hair and skull t-shirts. Her fuck-you attitude and insistence on being called Daisy rather than Elizabeth (‘Only my Dad calls me Elizabeth, and he’s an asshole’) all point to a character with no time for rules or parental interference. And yet it is Daisy’s voice that opens the film with a monologue of vicious control. This fractured monologue returns at later points in the film, reminding Daisy to take her pills, wash her hands, drink enough water. For all Daisy’s outward display of rebellion she has a deep drive towards control. This interior monologue is paradoxically a chaotic turmoil of control. It provides Daisy with conflicting advice, and even urges her to take risks. The strangely chaotic nature of this controlling voice is expressed not only through its fractured, layered delivery but in its ability to exceed the diegetic limits of the film - extending beyond the narrative starting point to infiltrate the display of production company logos.

The type of control represented by Daisy’s monologue is thus presented as just as destructive as the chaos it tries to keep in check and unwittingly resembles. Daisy’s rebellion is also as compromised and ‘impure’ as her control, a fact which becomes apparent through contact with the real freedom experienced by her cousins. Daisy is (quite reasonably) horrified at the thought of being driven home by a fourteen-year-old with a Land Rover. She appears uptight in contrast to the homely chaos of the homestead of her eccentric English cousins, all unwashed plates and goats in fancy dress.

The film implies that the attitudes of both Daisy and her cousins are as the result of absent parents. These are however very different types of absence, with starkly different results. Daisy’s father is totally inaccessible. There is a suggestion that he has turned away from his daughter after the death of Daisy’s mother. Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor) may be secluded in her study and letting her children run wild, but her children seem relatively unaffected by this turn of events. Daisy’s cousins enjoy the freedom from parental control while accepting that their mother has important work to do. A glittery handmade sign announcing ‘Mum at Work’ pinned to Aunt Penn’s study door suggests a loving relationship where it is understood that sometimes mum needs not to be disturbed. A further example of parental absence is Daisy’s mother, absent through death but hauntingly present in photographs. Daisy occupies the room that was once her mother’s, and Daisy grows to appreciate the tumbledown house and back-to-nature-freedoms afforded by it soon after being told by Aunt Penn that Daisy’s mother loved the place. This could suggest a growing closeness between Daisy and her mother, a sense of Daisy becoming her mother that coincides with Edmond (George MacKay) and Daisy become the de facto parents of the group after Aunt Penn leaves. This move to becoming mother is something Daisy resists later in the film.

Daisy’s treatment of Piper (Harley Bird) is far from clichéd notions of nurturing motherhood. Indeed Daisy becomes as brutally authoritarian as the regime the pair is escaping. There is a suggestion that freedom is therefore only obtainable through the oppression and control of others, a dynamic also playing out in the war that acts as a structuring absence for the film. Daisy’s steeliness and determination comes close to cruelty, and we are perhaps supposed to see something of Daisy’s father reflected in her coldness towards Piper. While Daisy does soften in her attitude to Piper, and is fiercely protective of her cousin, her behaviour is nevertheless extremely controlling. Daisy’s justification for pushing Piper (and herself) so hard is not all that different from the attitudes of the state: It’s for their own good. Daisy’s motives can also be read as entirely selfish. Whilst Daisy claims to be motivated by bringing Piper back home to be reunited with her brothers, Daisy’s primary motivation is her own reunion with Edmond. The Freudian charge of Daisy’s nightmares --" scenes of dismemberment and fleeing naked through woods recalling David Lynch and Angela Carter respectively --" surely reveal her motivations. These are not scenes of a happy family reunited, but of sexually charged and graphic fears of separation and pursuit.

When Daisy and Piper finally make it back home it is Piper and not Daisy who must play the role of parent. In a particularly devastating scene, Piper prepares Daisy a bowl of baked beans in a childish attempt at parenting. Daisy looks out to the camera with dead eyes, vaguely moving her spoon back and forth in the bowl. It is the film’s most striking scene of parental absence.

The film also deals with parental loss and the absence of children. Mrs McEvoy (Stella Gonet) takes in Daisy and Piper after the loss of her own son, suggested to be dead but with Mrs McEvoy still harbouring hope for his return. The period Daisy spends here, planning for escape is the film’s most pleasing evocation of the theme of control through style. The rhythmic pacing of the editing and the almost delirious repetition of images demonstrate not just the state imposed control but Daisy’s own self-imposed control in preparation for her escape attempt. Again, control is presented as a prerequisite of freedom, rather than simply the absence of freedom. Similarly, once ‘free’, Daisy must be even more controlled, rationing food and suffering forced marches. Daisy must even restrain from assisting a woman taken captive by soldiers in order to keep herself and Piper free.

The depiction of state control in the film is interesting if considered along the lines of parental control. From the perspective of Daisy, Edmond, Piper, and Isaac (Tom Holland), state control is unnecessarily repressive. The group resent being treated like children unable to fend for themselves when they have successfully been living happy, free lives in England’s own Eden. The separation of the group is cruel and unnecessary, with utter disdain shown for the lives being torn apart. The dawn raid appears an especially disproportionate show of strength.

And yet is there not something here of a teenager’s conflict with parental control? The parent insisting it is acting for the teen’s best interest, the teen claiming the parent doesn’t care or understand the importance of the teen’s feelings. It is perhaps even possible to justify Daisy and Piper’s internment, although doing so we enter the murky waters of using the threat of terrorism to justify draconian measures. The day before Aunt Penn’s friend is due to arrive to supervise the children in Penn’s absence, Isaac jokingly remarks that it is the last chance for the group to have fun before the fascist regime starts. He means this in reference to the reinstatement of parental control, although after the war begins his statement becomes more accurate than he could have imagined.

Ultimately, the state control is deemed unjustifiable. When Daisy and Piper find the barracks to where the boys were taken, it is clear that the boys were being trained as soldiers. Finding Isaac among the piles of the dead confirms the inhumanity of the state’s control. Edmond returning from war physically and emotionally scarred confirms this, the film’s unequivocal symbol of freedom broken by the horrors of control. However, for all the damage done to him, Edmond is still presented as a creature of nature who finds solace tending the garden.

Edmond is granted a near mystical status in the film. His introductory appearance is truly marvellous: glimpsed fleetingly from a moving car as he emerges from the hedgerows, there is a hawk on his fist and he is accompanied by a folk song on the car radio. Edmond has all of Heathcliff’s connection to nature with none of his madness and spite (although the incestuous subtext remains). He is brooding but not sullen; his presence is more that of a quiet blankness. Edmond is aligned with nature almost to the point of parody, through his actions, his costume - all knitwear in natural tones - his sexuality and even his silence. I say ‘almost’ because for all that this alignment is heightened, it is always convincing.

A perfect example of this excessive coding is the scene in which Daisy and Edmond fly the injured hawk for the first time. The hawk, referred to as female, had suffered a broken wing but is nursed back to health by Edmond. In an earlier scene (with voyeuristic overtones) Daisy witnesses Edmond tenderly handling the hawk before inexplicably and violently thrusting the struggling hawk into a cage. Later Edmond explains that the hawk had to be locked away for her own good, and Daisy begins to learn the joy of freedom as she and Edmond stand together watching the now healed bird soar above them. The metaphor is obvious, and yet I think the scene is even more beautiful for its instant legibility. The hawk is also a further example of control (or confinement) as a necessary prerequisite of freedom.

Many of the scenes with Daisy and Edmond are wonderfully iconic and as erotically charged as anything from Twilight (2008). When Edmond plunges with Daisy into the river - a moment symbolising her opening up to the possibilities of freedom - it’s as if Colin Firth’s Darcy had swept Lizzy Bennet into the lake at Pemberley with him. Even this moment fails to match the exquisite tender-yet-perverse moment where Edmond raises Daisy’s wounded, bloodied, finger to his lips. Such contact would normally be an unthinkable transgression for Daisy --" it is indeed a strangely taboo gesture, an odd intimacy that emphasises their blood relation. It’s also an intensification of the gestures of courtly romance, so much more than simply kissing one’s hand. It is not surprising then that it is a repetition of this gesture that Daisy uses to call Edmond back to her.

Even with the repetition of this fabulous gesture, I cannot help but find the ending of How I Live Now slightly disappointing. It veers into Jane Eyre territory, with Daisy turned nursemaid to an (at least figuratively) neutered lover. But Edmond is not Rochester, and there is no need for him to be punished and tamed - he seems merely a victim. The film may present the lovers reunited, but the ending is for me rather downbeat. I can’t forget Isaac’s glasses, buried under an anonymous stone in some unknown wooded place, and I can’t help but feel it is the destructive, excessive control that has won out over the utopian freedom depicted earlier in the film, and this is a great sadness.

This Alternate Take was published on November 15, 2013.

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