In Celebration of the Ordinary

Robert Moyes reviews Victoria Film Festival showing of Ethel & Ernest

By Robert Moyes

Bittersweet and never overly sentimental, Ethel & Ernest is an award-winning animation based on a graphic novel by acclaimed writer-illustrator Raymond Briggs. In a live-action prologue to this endearing tribute to his long-deceased parents, Briggs admits that there was nothing “exceptional” about Ethel and Ernest. But they were ordinary people who lived through extraordinary times; that, plus their decency and many foibles make for a funny, poignant, and always engaging journey. From the harrowing challenges of enduring aerial bombardment during the Second World War to droll memories of family life, this couple somehow embodies the pluck and spirit of a now-vanished generation of Britons.

The movie follows a straightforward chronology, starting with a chance meeting in 1928 London between the couple-to-be. Ethel is a ladies maid whose exposure to finery has seemingly blinded her to the fact that she’s actually working class herself; while Ernest, a milkman, is a carefree Cockney with a cheery ebullience that flusters Ethel a bit while soon winning her heart. Then comes marriage, and within a few years they have their only child, Raymond.

News of Chancellor Hitler can be heard over the newfangled wireless in their living room, and before too long the drumbeats of war are sounding. Terrifying bombing raids and assaults by V2 rockets add drama to the story, and five-year-old Raymond is one of over a million city children shipped out to safety in the countryside. The war over, Churchill and his big cigar are chucked out of office and the Labour government takes charge – delighting the socialist Ernest but displeasing the more conservative Ethel.

But if Ethel and Ernest disagree politically – and about many other things – they unite in horror when the maturing Raymond walks away from his scholarship to grammar school in favour of attending an art college. And what’s with that long hair? They are now reluctant witnesses to the ever-accelerating pace of change. In 1969 the elderly parents watch on their TV as Apollo 11 lands on the moon, only to ask, “What are they doing up there?” They remain equally bemused by their son’s career as an artist … even if he’s now making more money than his dad ever did. The gross infirmities of old age eventually claim Ethel and Ernest, who die within months of each other, in 1971 … but the sting of their passing is lessened by a gentle “life goes on” touch that cleverly circles back to something Raymond did as a small boy.

This admittedly slight story has been beautifully lifted off the page by the marvelous vocal talents of Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn in the lead roles. Equally satisfying is the visual look of the film, which favours tidy, understated realism and a muted colour palette. Add appropriately nostalgic music on the soundtrack and this charmingly affectionate memoir illustrates the power of a son’s love.

Rating: ***1/2

Screening Wed., Feb. 7 at the Star Cinema

Just Posted

Thousands attend 31st TD Art Gallery Paint-In

Artists display their work along 20 blocks of Moss Street

Power the music: the Victoria Bike Music Fest returns

Audience members on stationary bikes will energize speakers as musicians play

Rat Pack back in Sidney

Tribute group re-ignites the magic of a Vegas gone by

SYMPHONY SPLASH: Movie music keeps things fun at Splash

Victoria Symphony event is far more than just a classical music concert

Iconic Langham Court keeps community involved in theatre

Rockland-based company continues building legacy after nine decades

Big-time racing on tap in Langford this month

Western Speedway the place to be for a roaring good time in summer

Black Press videographer to direct full-length feature, wins Telefilm grant worth $125,000

Arnold Lim to expand story of All-In Madonna with writer Susie Winters, producer Ana de Lara

Saanich Fair: An idea is born

The attaining of a 150th year anniversary is a notable event in… Continue reading

B.C. singer up against Shania Twain for Canadian country music award

Madeline Merlo and Shania Twain are two of five nominees for female artist of the year.

Reviews are in for B.C.-shot ‘Skyscraper’ action movie

City’s film liaison recalls four days of filming at city hall last fall, with Dwayne Johnson on set

Nicolas Cage films in B.C. town

Hollywood actor filming A Score to Settle in North Okanagan

Five fun things to do this weekend

From a paint in to festivals, there are lots of fun events taking place this weekend

Canadian actress Sandra Oh makes Emmys history with ‘Killing Eve’ nomination

Oh made history as the first Asian woman to be nominated for an Emmy Award for lead actress in a drama series.

Most Read