The key to the appeal of Ethel and Ernest is how ordinary the movie is. This is a love letter of sorts from graphic novel artist Raymond Briggs (of The Snowman fame) to his parents. It traces their life story, from meeting, bringing young Raymond into the world and experiencing key events such as World War 2 and Man landing on the Moon.
This seems very ordinary but it is in the simplicity of their life that the charm lies. There is a recognisable truth running through the movie, with conversations feeling very natural between two well-adapted but quite different personalities.
These personalities are brought to life in two very distinct ways. The first is the animation. Raymond Briggs has a distinct style and it is used to great effect here. The soft, pencil coloured drawings capture a previous time well and offer a more nostalgic view, while for some key moments (particularly in the more poignant scenes at the end of the movie) a harsh context is used to make figures and moments very distinct.
The second key touch to the characters is the voice artists chosen. Jim Broadbent is the perfect choice as the voice of Raymond’s Dad Ernest and brings a smile to his face with the enthusiasm that Ernest has for the new advances introduced in his lifetime. This is offset will with Brenda Blethyn as Ethel, who’s soft tones calm her more exuberant husband.
These two actors also help make the animated movie so funny. Although never hilarious, which it isn’t supposed to be, Ethel and Ernest has a great vein of comedy as Ernest embraces each new technological change, like the invention of television or the introduction of electricity while Ethel shakes her head and questions each change to her way of life. They represent the two sides of that coin well and this works very effectively when moments of history occur, like the Blitz bombings of London or the use of the first Atomic Bomb.
This does come with a slight issue though. The movie is based on a graphic novel and with many Raymond Briggs story, feels like a collection of disconnected moments rather than one solid narrative. You can imagine each scene of the movie is a page in the book, rather than part of the wider story and the conversations about changes in life and introductions of new technology, and the opposing sides the characters take, does become slightly worn and repetitive.
This is until the final act. What is a funny, charming and almost quite innocent film soon takes a darker turn as the narrative reaches the end of the character’s lives. Subjects like schizophrenia, dementia and loneliness are touched upon and although this is an important part of the film, it does clash quite harshly with what goes before.
This doesn’t make it any less important though or effect the film too negatively. In fact, it adds to that ordinariness which makes the film so appealing and would have been to the movie’s detriment to remove this too.
Overall, Ethel and Ernest captures a couples quite ordinary life very well. This is mostly what makes the film so appealing and gives the two central characters their charm. The film is funny, has some great innocence but ends on a well-earned tinge of sadness. Another potential Briggs classic.
Rating – 4.5
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