– Jodie Comer faces up against climate disaster in Mahalia Belo’s adaptation, a film more interested in realism than thrills
Jodie Comer in The End We Start From
Disaster films used to be fun — now, they’re a glimpse at a practically certain future. In The End We Start From, adapted by Alice Birch from the novel of the same name by Megan Hunter and released tomorrow, 19 January, in UK cinemas via Signature Entertainment, Jodie Comer of Killing Eve fame is caught in floods sweeping through London and sending people literally running for the hills. It’s a realistic vision of the social and infrastructural collapse scientists worldwide have been warning us about for a while now, and which is already underway in less privileged areas of the globe.
Realism is what director Mahalia Belo is going for here, her camera staying close to Comer to record her protagonist’s personal experience rather than centre on the global stakes of the catastrophe. Belo aims for a visceral representation of what going through such an event might be like, giving a sense of how it actually feels to experience it both physically and mentally. At times, she succeeds: the opening sequence, showing Comer alone at home, heavily pregnant while the storm outside worsens, is particularly effective at showing the lack of panic when faced with a disaster not sudden but which has been building up over years. Comer’s protagonist is eating junk food and watching television, while her neighbours have already abandoned their homes and rainwater is seeping into the house from under the door. When she goes into labour just as the flooding in the building becomes critical, the “waters breaking” parallel does not feel tacky, precisely because these opening moments are patient and slow enough for the audience to absorb the atmosphere of the situation. Rather than something that would only serve to lead to the punchline, the sequence feels like a moment lived-in and felt.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film does not consistently maintain this visceral effect, as the protagonist, her baby and her partner (Joel Fry) go seeking higher plains in the British countryside. This is partly because from a more senses-focused aesthetic, the film and the characters themselves shift to action. Leaving her cosy London apartment, the new mother encounters the outside world and other people more directly than she has up to that point, in part because of the isolating experience of pregnancy but also because of her own personal choices — it seems the film (and presumably the book) sought to represent the most average perspective by identifying with a person completely disengaged from the climate issues of her time; whether that is by selfish disinterest or a feeling of powerlessness, we do not know.
Here, the film taps into imagery and problems made familiar by the Coronavirus pandemic: mass panic, critically underprepared government infrastructure, references to hoarding of supplies and food. But even more obvious are the things the film does not address or mention: the fact that these floods are not a surprise, and that climate breakdown will only get worse; the role played by the government in leading the country (and the world) to this place, and the anger from those facing the consequences of the actions (and inactions) of the powerful. Even in the urgency of the present, it seems there would be some place for the people going through these disasters to feel these emotions and have these thoughts.
Most of this comes down to the characterisation of the lead protagonist. Although her single-minded focus on her newborn and her partner is understandable for a time, it does eventually slip into a kind of disinterest for wider issues that feels rather implausible. She seems a little too at ease witnessing the collapse of civilisation around her (people fighting over food, a refugee camp invaded by armed assailants), with little thought for anything beyond her own immediate, material reality. Perhaps this is a failure on the filmmaker’s part in truly giving us a sense of how overwhelmed she might feel, or how all-consuming motherhood might be for her. This behaviour would be more understandable if she evolved in a constant state of urgency — as is the case in The Blaze [+see also:
film profile], another recent non-Hollywood climate disaster film — but there are plenty of calmer moments for her to pause and reflect. Also from France, The Animal Kingdom [+see also:
interview: Thomas Cailley
film profile] succeeded in finding this delicate balance between the demands of immediate survival and wider societal questions.
But The End We Start From is quite resolutely not interested in questions of (government) responsibility and nationwide change: the reveal near the end that this huge flood was only a wave, with the benevolent London mayor calling for volunteers to help clean up the city, feels rather convenient and contradicts what remains a catchy title for both book and film. Comer and Fry are convincing as a young couple in over their heads (almost literally drowning), and the focus on their connection and the pain of having to separate is one of the film’s most intriguing and unexpected ideas. But like most things in the film, the pull of their love, which gives them the resolve to face all kinds of dangers, is shown rather than felt.
The End We Start From was produced by the UK’s SunnyMarch, Hera Pictures, Anton Capital Entertainment (ACE), and BBC Films, and by C2 Motion Picture Group from the US, with backing from the British Film Institute. International sales are handled by Anton (UK).