Bitchface American teenager Daisy (don't call me Elizabeth), head filled with OCD and a cacophony of inspirational bullying in her own voice touches down in the UK to spend some time with her British cousins. Wrongfooting from the first breath she joins them in what seem like near feral conditions. The mother who was meant to meet her is absent. Her own father has pretty much Fed Ex-ed her to somewhere conscience-placating where he isn't. Amid the filthy plates and pets on the kitchen table there is Edmond, the eldest, golden, serene, beautiful. Detail by detail of the English kids' continual welcome in spite of her rudeness, Daisy thaws out long enough to meet the mum who has a short chat to her in between constant phonecalls from people around Europe who seem to want to talk about the bar graph detailing potential mass casualties from the impending mass terrorist action. Oh, Mum's in the government. There's a war on. One more phone call and she's on the plane to Geneva. We already know we are not going to see her again.
Daisy, now almost personable, joins the others at their idyllic stream. Afterwards, as they are enjoying a picnic there is a sudden extreme gust of solid wind that pushes at the trees as though under massive pressure. It is followed by what looks like snow but feels like ash. The war's on.
Back home the lights are out. A prematurely aged staffer from the US consul visits to deliver a ticket home to Daisy who, having committed herself to the golden Eddie, burns it in a kind of ritual. One more night sleeping in the barn and they are woken by soldiers, battered into transport, separated and shipped off to emergency forced labour farms. There is little suspense about the certainty that Daisy will escape from this and take the 10 year old cousin she has finally bonded with. When that happens we are on a journey back to the home we started with because Daisy has seen Eddie back there in a dream. The rest is the journey and its end, most of the remainder of the screen time.
Plots like this, treks through adversity with survival at the goal posts tell of human maturation, of shedding the trivia of consumer life and its off the shelf complexes and compulsions to find responsibility and the strength within are goals enough, the rest is advertising and gravy. That's all they need to be and here the progression is told with the leanness of it YA lit source, not an ounce of narrative fat and very very little expository dialogue or voice over that feels expository. The pace is kept active and there is an impressive balance struck between the light and grave throughout so that if it ever verges on being too easy (and it does) there is always something nearby on the timeline to rough that out. This film is never less than compelling.
The cast are all solid. Of particular note is George MacKay as Eddie who uses his appealing self possessed masculinity to powerful effect. But this piece would not have been quite so compelling without the greatness of Saoirse Ronan at its centre. I first saw this pint sized Irish engine room in the superb Hanna from a few years ago and made a note to see what I could of her subsequent work. Oddly, the comparison I thought of most while watching her performance was not a Noomi Rapace or Sigourney Weaver but Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. The depth behind the callow bitchiness and the fear of her own failure can be heart rending in this film that allows so little sentimentality to take screen. Ronan is simply one of the contemporary screen greats.
Also, thank the gods of composer auditions for finding someone to do such a strong loud and proud ELECTRONIC SCORE that suits this film infinitely better than something like The Road's waterlogged string section conducted with a sledgehammer. This music by turns growling, fearsome, gentle or splendid is how it should be done. I'm going to be hunting down the soundtrack album if it's around.
See this while it's still on a decent sized screen before it just gets thrown into the candyhued mass of new release covers at your local video shop. You'll be glad you did.
You're gushing, PJ. Well, of course I'm gushing. I'm on holiday!