A look at some of the highlights screening during the third week of Chicago’s European Union Film Festival, by Peter Sobczynski
Now celebrating its 20th year, Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center once again presents the European Union Film Festival, a month-long program designed to highlight the newest films coming out of the EU member nations by offering a canny mix of highly anticipated titles and lesser-known films that may never again be seen in these parts. Running March 3-30, this year’s iteration offers up 62 titles from all 28 EU nations .
ETHEL & ERNEST (March 17, 18): At the beginning of this adaptation of his 1998 graphic novel of the same name, beloved British author/illustrator Raymond Briggs remarks that ”There was nothing extraordinary about my parents.” The same cannot be said about this lovely adaptation, done entirely through hand-drawn illustration, that begins as his parents, unassuming milkman Ernest (Jim Broadbent) and maid Ethel (Brenda Blethyn) meet in 1928 and follows them over the years as they marry, have a child and observe events ranging from World War II and the political and social upheaval of post-war England to the advent of television and the horror of learning that their son wants to go to art school. Although it is animated (and beautifully at that), this is not a film for little kids, mostly because the subject matter might make them restless. For everyone else, however, this is a wonderful work that is funny, touching, gorgeous to look at and features two of the very best voice performances in an animated film in a long, long time in the contributions from Broadbent and Blethyn.
Chicago edition of Time Out magazine
Based on a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs (best known for penning the animated holiday favorite The Snowman), Roger Mainwood’s Ethel & Ernest is a deceptively simple but deeply moving account of the lives of an ordinary married couple living in London from the late 1920s through the early 1970s. The title characters in Briggs’ book were explicitly based on his own parents and the way the film’s elliptical narrative quietly moves from one relatively uneventful vignette to another over the span of half a century has all the intimacy and emotion of flipping through a cherished family photo album. More than one critic has compared the film to the opening marriage montage of Pixar’s Up if that sequence had been sustained for the running time of an entire feature. The voice work of Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn as the central couple is magnificent and cinephiles will especially appreciate that their first date involves taking in a screening of John Ford’s Hangman’s House.
Third Coast Review, Chicago Arts and Culture. By Julian Ramirez.
Ethel and Ernest (UK)
There is something about the straightforward and sincere animated film Ethel and Ernest that speaks volumes about life. The film centers on the parents of Raymond Briggs, the illustrator and author of the graphic novel on which the film is based. The film focuses on little snapshot moments of the couple’s relationship from the moment they meet to the end of their lives. There is no central conflict or a concentrated story-line to follow. Instead the film tries and succeeds in displaying the beauty of this family in mid-20th century UK. You get to see these infinitely beautiful moments in their relationship, both in and out of context, that build on each other wonderfully. Every moment is dealt with honestly and the simple and understated hand-drawn animation breathes life into that honesty, much as Briggs’ original illustrations. Take for instance Briggs’ part in the whole film. He appears at the beginning of the film, introducing the story on which he clearly left an immense mark as Ernest and Ethel’s child, but he barely appears in the story. When he does, Briggs and his family’s interactions are portrayed with all the childhood innocence, adolescent angst, and eventual bittersweet truth that inhabits all of our lives. Ethel and Ernest is a moving film worth your attention. The film is as much a tribute as it is a love letter to Briggs’ parents, honoring them with all the grace and beauty that their lives deserved.