When I was still quite young, no more than ten or eleven, little excited my soul more than the sound of a fire alarm going off at school. We would exit the building quickly and stand in the parking lot, surveying the school. Someone would claim they saw smoke, and we would all say we did, too, and for a moment, the possibility of living a true and good life opened up before me, but then the drill would end and we would return to class. I would sit in a daze.
I came to believe, from a young age, that life truly began at the point romantic love entered the soul. Of course, I could not have used such a vocabulary to describe this suspicion at the time, but looking back now, this was my belief. The advent of such a confidence was certainly the pop music of my parents, who listened to Whitney Houston, Phil Collins and Amy Grant. “Didn’t we almost have it all/ When love was all we had worth giving? The ride with you was worth the fall my friend/ Loving you makes life worth living.” These were words which formed my deepest prejudices and intuitions in just the third grade. My father was in the military, and I had some faint understanding of what war was, and I knew that war meant upheaval, a suspension of normality. War meant that rules fell away; anything was possible in war, and so I thought that if I was to find romantic love, it would certainly take place in the context of war. Romantic love was the grand threshold of reality, and reality (the life of God Himself) was infinite and thus opposed to inevitability, much like the suspension of normality in war was opposed to inevitability. If the school was actually burning down, perhaps it had been bombed. Perhaps the Cold War was finally heating up. If so, Michelle Swanson would certainly return my love, at long last.
It could hardly be hyperbole to say A Far Off Place was delivered into the deepest recesses of my soul when I was twelve, about 1993. A teenaged Ugly American arrives in Africa for a summer at a wildlife preserve; initially, he is both attracted and rebuffed by the daughter of the gamekeeper, but when poachers massacre everyone at the preserve, the Ugly American and attractive daughter alone survive and must cross the Kalahari desert on foot to reach the nearest city. The murderous poachers pursue, the heat and sand war against them, and in the whole terrible ordeal the two obviously fall in love. Once again, in the context of a war, love emerged.
The romance-during-war story is a psychic juggernaut, then, for a host of reasons. The psychically expansive nature of romance breaks open on the moral uncertainties of war; war fashions a host of horrific images and ghastly spectacles which inspire a retreat back into the truly humane, and so a woman wants to cling to something reassuringly human, yet appropriately other, like a man. Even in the theater, a woman sometimes buries her face into the man’s shoulder when great pageants of violence are unveiled on screen. Further, war uncomfortably throws together diverse strata of society, and this plays into what every audience really wants of a great story, and that is dynamic change. A poor boy and a rich girl are standing in a bread line. They are repulsed by one another, him making jokes about her fancy dress getting dirty, her making jokes about his barely mammalian manners. They hate each other. A bomb goes off, then two, then ten, and the rich girl would run to her parents, but they are dead. She stands alone, vulnerable, while everyone scatters. The bombs continue to drop and the poor boy begrudgingly grabs the rich girl by the arm and drags her under a truck where they wait for the Luftwaffe to pass. In less than sixty seconds, those two characters have passed from mortal enemies onto a path which ends in the altar. “Get me out from underneath this machine,” she complains a moment later. “Give it time,” you think, happily. In archetypical form, I might have just described the first act of a thousand movies.
How I Live Now opens with heroine Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) arriving at Heathrow via New York, wearing a Grim Reaper t-shirt from Hot Topic and fashionably ripped-up nylons. The soundtrack is loud punk music, the credits are DIY-painted on the screen, and from time to time, Daisy hears an overlaid barrage of voices and noise from which I could make out news reports, facts from a dictionary, radio ads, television commercials, public service announcements from sub platform speakers, police on loudspeakers— the sonic bombardment of living in an American city which is liable to get stuck in your head.
Daisy performs the part of the Ugly American for a little while, although Ronan plays it without genuine commitment, as though her ennui at the prospect of going fishing is something of an act which she lacks the energy to truly stick with. Her father has packed her off to the UK to spend time with her cousins, whom she barely knows, on an idyllic English countryside estate. Apart from the estate, a second setting comes into view. Security at Heathrow is tight, tanks and armed guards abound, and a television Daisy gazes at a moment shows a bomb going off in Paris. Macdonald creates a threateningly plausible image of “increased security,” although he keeps Daisy oblivious to the anxious mood of the world around her, because she is so caught up in her own thoughts.
Daisy’s aunt works as an analyst for the British government and while she and Daisy talk, we catch glimpses of her work on a computer screen, stats predicting death rates in England. It seems that Daisy sees these stats, but her aunt is speaking of Daisy’s dead mother and how she formerly spent time in the same room where Daisy is bunking, and so the girl walks away in a fog, the significance of what is taking place in the world beyond her own interests still lost on her.
For a few days, Daisy wears sunglasses inside and acts bored, but her eldest cousin Edmond is quiet, patient and quite handsome, he can split wood with an axe, and he keeps a hawk in the woods behind their house. Little by little the charade passes and Daisy joins Edmond, along with Isaac and Piper (ages 14 and 8, respectively) for swimming and chatting at dusk. As a romance is blooming (the English have few stigmas against cousins marrying), Daisy’s aunt is suddenly called away to Geneva on business, leaving the mice to run the cheese shop. Then a nuclear bomb is detonated in London and World War III begins. A representative from the American consulate shows up to give Daisy her ticket back to America, but she burns the ticket and takes Eddie for a roll in the hay in an idyllic English countryside barn later that very night. How I Live Now might be seen as a companion piece to Macdonald’s earlier The Last King of Scotland; both films have feckless foreigners arriving in exotic lands, taking the locals to bed, and then slowly coming to terms with how a new home means new rules and new demands, growing up and controlling your will. Divorced from the rest of the film, Daisy and Edmond’s pre-nuptial lovemaking comes across as a glorification of the libertine lifestyle; the carefree sounds of Nick Drake’s “Which Will” score the halcyon day which leads the two to the barn, after all. Not to mention the dancing around the bonfire as the evening sets in. Would Macdonald have his teenage audience surrender so easily to the same impulses which drive his heroes? He would not, but to discover why, the trajectory of Daisy’s character must be seen. An isolated moment in the film cannot be treated as the film entire, even though this is exactly the kind of hermeneutic encouraged by Christian media outlets which evaluate films according to “objectionable content.” Objectionable content does not necessarily make for an objectionable movie, because a film is more than a series of facts. When Christians reduce a film to so much vulgar language, so much violence, so much sex, they kowtow to secular convictions that no singular, infinite divine nature holds all things together in a constant present. Instead, the life of the world is treated as a bowl of ultimately disconnected marbles, some of which are good, some of which are bad, yet all exist without arrangement, trajectory, plan or telos. Granted, the fact that Daisy and Eddie sleep together is inexcusable, although the fact it happens within the movie is no sign that Macdonald sees it any differently.
Daisy and Eddie are split apart days later by English military who are evacuating the countryside. They cling to one another, and as the guards tear them apart, Eddie tells Daisy to meet him back at the house. The boys are split from the girls, and Daisy and Piper are sent to live in a community of English women who sort through massive piles of nearly spoiled vegetables for what can be salvaged. They dress in hazmat suits, less the headpiece, and roll through days and weeks doing the same work ad nauseam while Daisy dreams of Eddie and news of the war occasionally floats through the plot like ash from a distant fire.
While Daisy is rendered a passive character throughout the second act— going where she is told, doing what she would rather not— she is also being tightly wound. She enters the movie dressed in faux-rebel garb, wearing an image of death’s psychopomp across her chest, but she’s far more passive then, in truth. Her commodified, pre-fab dissent registers as a kid’s game, a fit thrown in the checkout line. She is fully subject to her passions. But later, working on a war farm, the daily regimen of labor and contemplation of death allow her to think of herself less, to ruminate on the actual value of her life. When the refuge community is attacked (we never learn who England is battling, nor do we care), Daisy steals a map, a gun and a pack of sandwiches, and makes off with Piper across a war ravaged-landscape towards “home,” where she and Eddie have vowed to meet again.
Macdonald settles comfortably into this passage of the movie, a phantasmagoria of Daisy’s dreams and horrific dream-like scenes which only occur in the circumstances of war. There are shades of 28 Days Later (director Kevin Macdonald’s brother Andrew produced that zombie picture) here, as well as The Road, both of which lean heavily on the structure of the Odyssey. Wondering through the woods, Piper finds a red shoe (perhaps a nod to The Red Shoes, directed by Macdonald’s grandfather Emeric Pressburger), and then a box of chocolates and then sees a plane has crashed a hundred yards ahead. That red shoe evokes an Oz-like mood, as though Dorothy were returning home overhead and lost something, perhaps never arriving at her destination. Daisy is patient and impatient with Piper, who is slow and thirsty, as children are apt to be, but when she snaps and yells, she also apologizes. Daisy wakes in the middle of the night to find a band of villains roughing up some women, and she skitters away in the dark through the brush with Piper, her clothes becoming tattered. Midway through the trip, Daisy shoots some would-be rapists who attack her, and it is at this point that Daisy is presented anew.
While she appears exactly the same as she did at the beginning of the film, the meaning of her clothing has been transformed and the false nature of her prior self has been revealed. Through their trek back to the farm, Daisy has worn her Grim Reaper t-shirt, and the fresh pair of leggings she donned before escaping has become torn and shredded. The image of Death she wears is no longer mere decoration, a false show of defiance; she has seen Death and become Death to others. The ripped up tights of the first act are not the ripped up tights of the third act. As the film draws to a close, Daisy has come to understand that her prior flirtations with death were foolish, and that death is ugly.
When Daisy and Piper arrive back at the farm, they find Eddie beaten badly, laying in the woods. Daisy begins to nurse him back to health, but he will not speak and appears aloof, lost in his thoughts, overwhelmed by what he has been through, though we never learn what this is. Time passes, Eddie walks about the house and silently replants a garden with Daisy, who takes on the dress and habits of a grown woman, of a nurse. The film closes with one of the more impressive cinematic monologues of recent memory.
Before the war, I used my willpower for stupid stuff, like not eating chocolate… We don’t know what happened to Eddie, what he saw… the things he had to do. His burns and scars are starting to heal, but he hasn’t spoken. Now I will use my willpower to wait for you, Eddie, to care for you and love you. I have to believe that one day you’re going to get better.
Unlike most romantic movies set during a war, the love at the center of How I Live Now does not grow out of standard, obvious means. Eddie doesn’t gun down some bad guys about to kill Daisy, and Daisy doesn’t kick a gun into Eddie’s hand moments before some nameless villain smashes his head in with a lead pipe. Daisy admits to having no willpower before the war, and thus the early love scene is dismissed as immature, foolish. The love Daisy offers Eddie in the end gains no instant gratification, but is pleasure deferred until much later, a willingness to be patient, a hope flung deep in the future. Macdonald confirms the teenage intuition that romance is the truest horizon of reality, though he does so not within idealism, eros and sentimentality. Romance means taking up a cross.