Thursday, 16 March 2017

World Animation: United Kingdom - Ethel & Ernest

In the world of cinema, we are accustomed to dramatic, extraordinary, theatrical stories and films. However, sometimes the ordinary is overlooked and undervalued...these stories can result in a film that is just as moving and impactful - if not more so. Sometimes the best stories are the ones that surround us rather than the ones we make up in our minds. Roger Mainwood's Ethel & Ernest (2016), a film adaptation of Raymond Briggs' graphic novel, is a story of the extremely ordinarily British life of Briggs' parents. In this animation, no overly melodramatic events occur, nothing fantastical or is simply the lives of a couple living in London, "Briggs honoured his parents by playing up their chirpy stoicism, but theirs was a generation of vast change, which we witness overtaking them without their full understanding. The backdrop to this very English marriage - soot and grit and survival, and that basenote of touching bafflement," (Robey, 2016).

Fig 1. Ethel & Ernest (2016)

Ethel & Ernest encompass the (perhaps stereotypical) British life from the start. The film begins with a live action scene of Raymond Briggs making himself a cup of tea while discussing his graphic novel depicting the lives of his parents from them meeting in 1928 to their deaths in 1971, "There was 'nothing extraordinary' about his mum and dad, he tells us. But that's what's so lovely about 'Ethel & Ernest'. To borrow from a Taoist phrase, there's wisdom in seeing the amazing in the ordinary," (Clarke, 2016). This sets the tone for the rest of the is rather slow paced but it is still a charming film to watch. And despite the overall slow, composed pace of the film (and the equally calm personalities of the characters), it addresses some bigger, more impactful content through the realistic filter of Ernest and Ethel (voiced by Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn).

Some of the most poignant events in British history includes World War I and World War II, both wars that Ethel and Ernest have been through (although the film focuses in World War II more so). "They lived an ordinary life, but this is what makes the film so refreshing. We're so accustomed to seeing World War II through the eyes of soldiers on the front line...instead, this likeable London couple give an insight to the fate of those too old to be called up, who have to watch their young son be evacuated, and then build an air-raid shelter in their back yard," (Smith, 2016). We are given the rare opportunity to see the war through the eyes of an average citizen - someone who had to live through the war without being part of the actual combat. Here we can see the British attitude of just making do with things. Ernest and Ethel approach preparing for the war in a strangely calm manner, which would normally be presented in film with a more dramatic sequence. Despite being somewhat oblivious to what going on at times, they just get on with it...they build their bomb shelters, ensure their son is safe, and continue living their lives as normally as they possibly can.

Fig 2. The Bomb Shelter

World War II is not the only serious topic the film confronts. "The film touches on some dark subject matter - the neighbours whose sons have been killed in the war, the schizophrenia of Raymond's girlfriend - but does so with a very British restraint," (Macnab, 2016). Despite these more somber topics, the film and its characters continue to move on. Ethel & Ernest also shows additional difficult subjects including Ethel's struggle to pregnant (due to her age - she also nearly died during childbirth), the difficulty of families having to send their children away during the war, Ethel developing Alzheimers, and so on. Perhaps Raymond Briggs was trying to tell his audience, in a very British manner, that despite the dreadful things life can throw at you, there is still reason to get over it and move on.

Despite the sweet and sincere story that Raymond Briggs was telling his audience through his graphic novel and the consistency that Roger Mainwood brought to the film adaptation, it is easy to begin feel the film dragging on. "The problems with Ethel & Ernest's format become clear around halfway through, when the scenes begin to feel repetitive. A major event happens, Ernest comments on it, Ethel expresses political ignorance, then tuts at her husband before tidying the house...what began as amusing feels a little tired and predictable - and what works in the format of a graphic novel doesn't necessarily translate to the big screen quite as effectively," (Smith, 2016). However, seeing how charming the characters are it is relatively easy to forgive this slight flaw. It is true that this could be all down to the translation from a graphic novel into a film, but considering how much Raymond Briggs appreciated his parents and wanted to honour is nice to see that the film tried to stay true to its source. Despite its sluggish feel, it also makes the viewer hope that Ethel and Ernest were truly this way in real life.

Fig 3. Ethel, Ernest, & Raymond

Overall, Ethel & Ernest presents an animation that is very unlike other animations that are available to us and pushed in our faces. Often animators and directors take advantage of the malleable medium of animation to create cinematic, vivid, and unrealistic animation, stories and characters. However, Raymond Briggs and Roger Mainwood restrain themselves to create this genuinely British animation through and through. It is debatable that they restrained themselves too much, "In some ways, it seems to be a 95-minute 'time passing' montage...the story moves briskly, even faintly incuriously through events, never staying that long on each's an engaging film, but leaves you with a feeling that there might be a deeper, darker, more specific story to be told," (Bradshaw, 2016). Perhaps it would have been beneficial to focus in on some of the more serious topics, such as Raymond's wife's schizophrenia or Ethel's Alzheimers and bring more of a conclusion to them. However, this is Raymond Brigg's story of how he wishes to tell his parents' lives, so it is up to him to choose how to exhibit their history. Maybe not looking to deeply into these more serious subjects simply represents Ethel and Ernest's very English, resilient approach to life.

Bradshaw, P. (2016) Ethel & Ernest review - moving adaptation of Raymond Brigg's graphic novel At: Accessed on: 16/3/2017
Clarke, C. (2016) Ethel & Ernest At: Accessed on: 16/3/2017
Macnab, G. (2016) Ethel & Ernest review: Wonderfully evocative At: Accessed on: 16/3/2017
Robey, T. (2016) Ethel & Ernest review: Raymond Briggs honors his parents with slow-drip poignancy At: Accessed on: 16/3/2017
Smith, A. (2016) Ethel & Ernest Review At: Accessed on: 16/3/2017

Illustration List:
Figure 1. Ethel & Ernest [Poster] At: Accessed on: 16/3/2017
Figure 2. The Bomb Shelter [Film Still] At: Accessed on: 16/3/2017
Figure 3. Ethel, Ernest, & Raymond [Film Still] At: Accessed on: 16/3/2017


  1. Personally, I think not dealing with more major issues eluded too in the film is actually the point of film. Life is like that, particularly where Ethel and Ernest's generation are concerned. Yes some scenes are repetitive but yet again life is like that - Ordinary. I think not doing 'more' is central to the films central theme. In that regard conceptually the film has a 'self-righting mechanism'...yes you can say why didn't they tackle this or that but yet again did Ethel and Ernest?

    1. Yeah, I suppose those sorts of issues that are avoided in the film are problems the majority of people avoid and ignore.