Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is a closed off teenage terror, a bundle of neurosis wound far too tightly, she explodes to any provocation, takes any perceived slight as a challenge and actively excludes herself from the rest of humanity.
She’s been sent from her native New York to live with her cousins in rural England during a time of great political unrest with the threat of a war (between whom and for what reasons are never explained) that her aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor) seems to be heavily involved in.
She’s not present for Daisy’s arrival and they only share one brief conversation about Daisy’s deceased mother before disappearing on an important visit and her fate is never resolved. As such it is her set of children Isaac (Tom Holland), Piper (Harley Bird), Edmond (George Mackay) and their friend Joe (Danny McEvoy) who greet, transport, feed, house, entertain and attempt to reach out to Daisy.
Her constant criticism and disassociation is only broken by her obvious attraction to her eldest cousin Edmond, the boy who never uses words when an unbroken stare will do. If Daisy is connected to her technology, addicted to her phone and music as much as her pills, Eddie is her counterpoint, he tends to injured birds, he runs the farm, at one point he brings up a cow whisperer act to guide Daisy through a field. Her stand-offish nature seems to mellow after a few days, embracing the free-spirited lifestyle of her extended family at least as long as Eddie is present. Then the inevitable happens, the outbreak of war.
It is rather affecting, a nuclear device is detonated in London but before any more information is given the electricity drops and the children are left to fend for themselves on the farm. This is where the film starts to unravel; Director Kevin McDonald has filled the story with a great sense of foreboding up to this point but once the initial shock passes the characters don’t seem to react to their situation.
Their mother is missing, they where close enough to the explosion for ash to rain down on their picnic but they have no interest in doing anything but just having a good time. The premise may be similar to Red Dawn but where the wolverines bug out to the mountains, growing into soldiers, the family here move across the field to their barn have bonfires, go swimming, the war is a minor inconvenience to them. This is far more reminiscent of The Beach, a group of people determined to keep living the dream no matter what happens to anyone else. The only major difference brought on by this danger seems to be that Daisy considers the possible end of the world to be a good enough reason to start a relationship with her cousin.
Quite what brings them together is a little questionable, their connection appears to be entirely physical, they only share one conversation, in which she declares herself a curse and he says she’s not. It’s all a little shallow, this may well be an accurate representation of teenage infatuation but it’s hard to empathise with Daisy as her journey continues.
When the army arrives to evacuate the area, cunningly searching both buildings on the farm and finding the group, they split the girls and boys. It’s a very affecting scene somewhat ruined by Edmond’s indifference to his siblings and psychotic attempt to stay with Daisy, endangering everyone’s lives by attacking the soldiers. He and Isaac are taken to be trained for combat, Daisy and Piper sent to work on a larger communal farm. Here they live with an army major and his wife who seem to treat them well enough.
However, after weeks of isolation, no contact with a world in conflict they have no questions. Piper wants her mother back but they never even ask about her, about anywhere that might be safe, they just lay low and plan to escape, where to exactly?
Well, back to the farm of course.
Daisy’s insane quest seems to be based on Eddie’s last piece of astoundingly bad advice, to find him there no matter what else, more than the vague desire to reclaim that idyllic life, free from rules or responsibility. The problem is that she never learns better, she remains focused on the boy with magic lips at any cost, no matter who dies, who’s tortured, whatever’s lost she just wants to get him back. Her concern for the rest of their group seems to be a minor distraction, something to be contained so that she can focus on her goal
Technically it’s absolutely gorgeous, the golden yellows and luscious greens of the woodland give way to deep amber and warm copper holding out against forbidding shadows, and eventually the sickly greys of savaged lands and piled corpses. At its best it brings to mind Badlands’ contrast of beautiful landscapes with acts of brutality, at its worst it’s channelling Twilight.
It’s worth watching if only for the arresting cinematography and engaging sound design, the acting is refreshingly realistic children acting as if they were really children even if their actions are questionable. There’s just a lack of substance to it all, the second half of the film in particular feels like The Road with all the philosophy, tenderness and humanity removed.
It may be an elegiac tale of lost innocence but its characters lack any real depth.