Graphic novelist Raymond Briggs illustrated a beautiful story about his parents, Ethel & Ernest, which has now been adapted by Roger Mainwood into a big screen picture. But the film doesn’t begin in animated form, for we meet Raymond now, providing a nice, personal touch that reminds us that the events we are set to witness are entirely real, and the young boy we get to know so well is a very much a real person. Though such is the unwavering emotional investment we have in this indelible production, we hardly needed any convincing.
Ernest (Jim Broadbent) rides by Ethel’s (Brenda Blethyn) place of work each and every day, to one day find the courage to propose the idea of a date. Needless to say it goes rather well and the pair eventually wed, before giving birth to their first – and only – child. However with the nation on the brink of the Second World War, they find their lives turned upside down, particularly when having to wave Raymond (Luke Treadaway) off to the countryside during the conflict. Back at home they continued about their daily routine, all the while maintaining an amicable, loving relationship between them, awaiting the return of their son.
Though the synopsis above alludes only to the period during the war, this tale takes place across decades, from the first time the duo meet to the moment they both draw their last breath. In this time we get to know both Ethel and Ernest so well, as well-rounded, flawed characters, both with their imperfections, contending with the same ups and downs any married couple must face, humanising them, and their situation, effectively. Anything more romantic, more perfect would be idealistic – and that is far from what Mainwood is vying to achieve here, instead presenting one of the most real takes on long-term relationships and true love you’ll have seen on the silver screen in ages, despite being an animated feature. The atmosphere is so congenial too, as a film that while studiously exploring the severity of war and the foreboding threat of death, maintains a certain warmth and tenderness, enhanced along by the music from the era depicted. The context of the era is vital to the narrative too, as the war, the politics, the changing of technology are all essential plot devices that enrich the viewer’s experience. This may be a love story, but it’s one set against a stark changing of British society and values, which is just as important a theme.
That all being said, there truly isn’t anything particularly remarkable about the story of Ethel & Ernest – but then, that’s sort of the point. They’re like your parents, or my parents, just two people who love each other and strive to make ends meet. Every couple has a story, and this just happens to be theirs – and boy are we glad it’s one we know all about.