There’s a universally loved and admired sequence in the Pixar animation Up in which the key moments from a couple’s life are shown from their wedding day until ‘death do us part’ across a heart-breaking montage. Incredibly moving and powerful, it’s arguably Pixar’s finest hour (or four minutes, 21 seconds to be precise).
Ethel & Ernest portrays exactly the same theme writ large, albeit in a distinctly British – but no less successful – fashion. Directed by Roger Mainwood from the graphic novel by Raymond Briggs, it tells the story of Briggs’ parents - from milkman Ernest’s initial wooing of lady’s maid Ethel in 1928 through to their deaths in 1971.
On the surface they are good, decent, but unremarkable, people living life much like everyone else. The genius of Briggs’ book is that it shows how supposedly ordinary people still require the fortitude to negotiate all of life’s trials and tribulations, both personally and in terms of everything history throws at them – in Ethel’s and Ernest’s case living in a Blitz-torn London during World War Two.
Mainwood worked on previous Briggs film adaptations, including When the Wind Blows and perennial Christmas classic The Snowman, and his experience shows. The beautifully rendered animation perfectly captures Briggs’ unique drawing style. It’s a visual feast that will deserve as many repeat viewings as The Snowman (although a word of warning on that front, Ethel & Ernest is definitely not for younger viewers and rated PG for good reason).
Mainwood’s direction is equally deft. The film is full of subtle, clever touches and the pacing is spot on. There are scenes of great intimacy, but they never once outstay their welcome.
The voicework is also exemplary, with the two leads – Brenda Blethyn (Ethel) and Jim Broadbent (Ernest) – adding further depth to their characters. The film is packed with humorous moments, often involving the verbal interplay between Ethel and Ernest.
It would be easy for such subject matter to become overly sentimental. However, Briggs’ work has often contained darker, sadder underlying themes. People remember the ‘Walking in the air’ flying sequence, but it’s easy to forget that The Snowman ends with the excited boy rushing to his back garden in the morning only to discover his friend has melted away to nothing.
And so it is with Ethel & Ernest. You are a more resolute person than me if you can watch the film without a tear welling up at some point. At least one scene, if not many, will be a poignant reminder of a particular person or moment in your own life.
Having very recently spent a day with my brother and father sorting through belongings my mother had acquired throughout her life, a scene towards the end of the film in which Raymond sighs “I suppose I’d better get The Salvation Army to take it all away” felt deeply personal to me. Things we’d reluctantly yet ruthlessly thrown into a bin bag had meant something to my Mum when she’d bought or kept them.
Ethel & Ernest captures moments in life such as these, happy and sad. A beautiful film.
I watched Ethel & Ernest at a special screening at Komedia in Brighton, which included a question and answer session with Roger Mainwood and Raymond Briggs after the film. It was a moving experience - having just seen him portrayed as a baby, boy and young man – to see the now 82-year-old Raymond, visibly emotional, emerge from the audience and take to the stage.
Afterwards I somewhat shamelessly made a beeline for him and asked if he’d kindly sign a copy of The Snowman I’d brought with me. He found a table and happily did so. We had a brief chat and I told him my Grandad, like his Dad Ernest, had been a fireman in London during the blitz. It was a privilege to meet him.