Raymond Briggs is never far from your television screen at Christmas time. Put on any TV channel in December and you’re likely to see the iconic adaptations of his seminal works The Snowman or Father Christmas, charmingly animated and filling your soul with festive cheer. But this year, BBC One aired a slightly different Briggs adaptation…In 1998, Briggs created a graphic novel that told the true story of his parents - from their first meeting in 1928 all the way to their deaths in 1971. It was a moving and poignant tale, but funny and entertaining all the same. It was only a matter of time until it was adapted for the screen.
Unlike most adaptations of Briggs’ work, Ethel & Ernest is a feature-length film that had a cinema release before being broadcast on BBC One at Christmas. Now out on DVD, is it any good? In a word, yes. In more words, it is absolutely perfect. Ernest (Jim Broadbent) is a cheeky milkman, enthusiastic and optimistic about life. After spotting lady’s maid Ethel (Brenda Blethyn) through the window of a posh home, Ernest makes it his business to cycle past every day so he can see her. Eventually, he knocks on the door to ask her out on a date – and so begins a love that endures over 40 years of change.
Narratively, Ethel & Ernest is simultaneously about nothing and about everything. It is a tale of beguiling simplicity. On the surface, it is simply a progression through the lives of our titular couple – from their courtship in the 1920s, to their deaths in 1971. They are, for lack of a better word, a normal couple, going through day-to-day life. There’s no big narrative drive or plot twist, it’s essentially a fly-on-the-wall documentary following a working-class couple. But on a deeper level, Ethel & Ernest is a rich study of social and political developments through the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s - and a love letter to life itself. As the couple witness the Great Depression, World War II and the emergence of post war austerity and cultural enlightenment, their love stands strong above all else.
By the film’s end, our heroes have passed away, and we’re left feeling inspired to live long and fulfilling lives ourselves. It is a poignant tale of living in historic times – and with everything that’s going on in the world, 2017 could just be one of the most historic years we’ve had.
The short runtime of Ethel & Ernest means the pace is brisk, ploughing through history at high-speed. For the most part, our understanding of each scene’s era is spelled out to us by Ernest reading the newspaper aloud to Ethel (“it says ‘ere they’re legalising homosexuality” or “it says ‘ere there’s a new device called a television, it’ll be like going to the pictures but not leavin’ the ‘ouse”) and it’s a rather charming way to make exposition not feel so heavy-handed – that said, in fast moving montages of time passing, Ernest’s insistence on reading the news does push the narrative backward and make the film feel a little too much about time and place. But even in the weaker areas, the film still looks stunning.
The animation is beautiful. As is the norm with Briggs adaptations, the visuals faithfully reproduce both the detail and gorgeous simplicity of Briggs’ hand-drawn style. The traditional animation of bold black lines with bright colours within allows for a stronger sense of nostalgia, all-the-more-apt when considering the film’s historic eras covered. The film simply wouldn’t have had this charm in live action – especially with animation allowing for a more realistic display of characters, and locations, ageing. The characters look accurately old and frail by the end of the film, truly making us feel we’ve lived through a full life with them.
Fans of Raymond Briggs will also be interested to see the young artist develop through the eyes of his parents, disappointed in the fact he’s pursuing a career in the arts. One quick sequence portrays Raymond sketching a snowman; a charming little piece of foreshadowing for one of Britain’s finest illustrators. The film even opens with a brief live-action introduction, with Raymond sketching his parents and discussing how he feels they would be proud to be the focus of a film – 45 years after their passings.
Ethel & Ernest is a masterpiece of animation, and one of the finest films out of Britain in many years. It is a stunningly beautiful piece of work, and without doubt, one of 2016’s best. If you haven’t seen it yet, I implore you to drop everything and enter the world of Ethel & Ernest.
Ethel & Ernest is a heartfelt tribute to an ordinary couple, and a bittersweet study of British history. 5/5
Ethel & Ernest at CeX
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