(Kevin MacDonald, 2013)
How I Live Now presents WWIII from a single viewpoint. That viewpoint belongs to Daisy (Saoirse Ronan), an annoying American teen spending a summer in rural England with her cousins. Daisy has issues - ignored by her father who has remarried and is enjoying a new baby, she mourns the mother who died giving birth to her, and we overhear the white noise of her thoughts, a stream of unfocused anger and self-help tips. But her cousins are joyously unsupervised (their mother is tellingly absent working on some "peace process") and Daisy is soon won over by their chaotic, fun lifestyle. She also falls in love with the eldest, the intense, moony Edmund (George MacKay), as the world appears to open up to her. MacDonald shoots all this to best emphasise the picturesque beauty of rural England; sunlight through trees, streams twisting alongside fields, children skipping across meadow. These scenes of rural idyll are scored to the likes of the Fairport Convention and Nick Drake, and the beauty of it all makes it unsurprising - unavoidable, perhaps - that Edmund and Daisy should fall so hard for each other.
And then the bomb falls. One scene is interrupted by a sudden rush of wind, a distant whomp, and then a rain of ash. The children freeze, the quiet horror of what has happened evident even to them. London has been bombed, the war begun. Soon the power will be gone, the food run out.
After that the army will come, separating girls and boys. Daisy and her young cousin Piper wind up on a work farm, but Daisy has told Edmund she will return to the house, and driven by her love for him, she and Piper desperately attempt to gain their freedom.
The last act of the film is harrowing and unbelievably dark for what is otherwise a teenage coming of age romance. The scenes of war, when they do come, are beautifully effective for being limited to one viewpoint. Daisy barely has any idea of what is going on - tv and radio speak of terrorists, poisoned water supplies, and the countryside is transformed into a sinister landscape like something from a 1970s UK television show (Survivors, most obviously) - grimly pretty, filled with threatening strangers, burning houses, eerily abandoned towns and clapped out land rovers. The glimpses we get of the enemy are frightening but vague; we don't know who they are or where they're from, but they kill young men, rape women and burn villages down.
Through this world Daisy and Piper trek; driven remorselessly by Daisy's need to see Edmond again. The all-consuming nature of her passion for him is skillfully evoked by MacDonald and his trio of screenwriters, but more specifically by Ronan and MacKay, whose mute physical chemistry is aided by her charisma and his introspective charm. The link they forge early on carries the emotional load through the ordeal of the third act, making the climax surprisingly emotionally charged and moving.
Daisy's character arc feels hard-won and true, not mandated by screenwriting rules, a rarity in a film based on a young adult novel.
Ronan's commitment plays a big part in that, but it is MacDonald's direction that makes the film feel so gritty, its textures so vivid and distinctive. He includes one too many montages, but How I Live Now is beautiful, tough, and strange. He has had an odd, schizophrenic career, from his many high-quality documentaries (Touching the Void, most impressively) to his somewhat anonymous but generally decent feature films, which makes him seem like an exceptionally capable craftsman without much of an individual voice. There are worse things for a director to be.