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

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