Ethel & Ernest

 

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The  ghost of Noël Coward haunts this unusual animated film.

 
Ethel & Ernest

 

Although most familiar to viewers today through that TV staple The Snowman, the work of the writer Raymond Briggs is not unknown to cinema audiences since in 1986 he adapted his best-selling graphic book When the Wind Blows for the big screen. That was a warning tale of nuclear catastrophe but one which featured a couple akin to his own parents. Now even more directly we have Ethel & Ernest which he introduces in person and which is again an adaptation of another of his best sellers presented as an animated feature. Although Briggs is an executive producer here, the adaptation has this time been left to the film's director Roger Mainwood. Nevertheless, the opening remarks by Briggs make it clear that this piece specifically commemorates his parents and, while it tells their story, he himself naturally has a significant role within it being their only child. The voice cast assembled is a remarkable one headed by Jim Broadbent, Brenda Blethyn and Luke Treadaway as the three members of the Briggs family and with artists such as Virginia McKenna participating even in the briefest of supporting roles.

 

Briggs refers to his parents as very ordinary people and the film starts charmingly with a humorous depiction of their courtship in London in 1928. Ethel was then a lady's maid and Ernest a milkman. However, the film soon changes character even though it retains humorous elements. Both parents died in 1971 and consequently their story plays out against the history of the times with special emphasis on the Second World war when young Raymond was an evacuee. The film soon becomes deeply reminiscent of the work of Noël Coward. I refer not to the witty Coward of, say, Private Lives, but the Coward who portrayed 20th century British lives over decades in such works as Cavalcade and This Happy Breed setting ordinary lives of families against major historical events. 

 

With a helpful score by Carl Davis and a neat use of old recordings, the film reflects past eras and the hand drawn animation is of a high standard. But, despite the aims so keenly felt by Raymond Briggs, the simplified storytelling portraying two uneducated people can at times seem unintentionally condescending. This might have been avoided if there had been more detailed individuality in the characterisations (Ernest is proudly working class and left wing, Ethel wants to be ladylike and admires Churchill but there's nothing very idiosyncratic here). When young Raymond is brought home by the police following some minor thieving and is then let off with a caution, the film accompanies this dramatic moment to telling effect with the famous comic song The Laughing Policeman and that shows a sophistication found at no other point. But the film is heartfelt and very much its own thing.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Voices of  Jim Broadbent, Brenda Blethyn, Luke Treadaway, Roger Allam, Peter Wight, Pam Ferris, June Brown, Simon Day, Virginia McKenna, Harry Collett, Karyn Claydon.

 

Dir Roger Mainwood, Pro Camilla Deakin, Ruth Fielding and Stéphan Roelants, Screenplay (from the graphic novel by Raymond Briggs) Roger Mainwood, Art Dir Robin Shaw, Ed Roger Overall, Music Carl Davis.

 
Cloth Cat Animation/Ethel & Ernest Productions/Lupus Films/Mélusine Productions-Vertigo Films.
94 mins. UK. 2016. Rel: 28 October 2016. Cert. PG.