It seems almost impossible to transform Megan Hunter’s debut novel, The End We Start From, into a film. The scant novel, told in haunting, poetic vignettes, is a gripping survival tale but comprises hardly more than 100 pages. Leave it to screenwriter Alice Birch—who has brought Normal People and The Wonder to the screen, among her other credits—to adapt Hunter’s delicate brush strokes into a fully-realized painting that leaves an emotional and philosophical impact.
THE END WE START FROM ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
In the film, from British director Mahalia Belo, Jodie Comer plays an unnamed woman living in London. The city begins to flood uncontrollably, the result of an environmental crisis, as she gives birth to her first child. She and her husband (Joel Fry) are forced to flee to the countryside, crammed into their small car in hopes of finding higher ground. They seek refuge with his parents, played by Mark Strong and Nina Sosanya, but the safety is short-lived. Food runs scarce and people gather into makeshift shelters, where Comer’s mother discovers she’s not alone in trying to raise a child in harrowing circumstances.
While many apocalyptic stories focus on the disaster and chaos, Belo narrows in on the people. She brings the camera in close to Comer’s face and it’s a master class of nuanced acting as Comer’s character is suddenly alone with the baby, putting one step in front of the other across England to find her husband again. Katherine Waterston plays another recent mom who joins the quest for safety and the pair encounter a lonely, grieving man (Benedict Cumberbatch, who also produced) in one of the film’s best scenes.
The future is bleak, certainly, and we may very well be facing a climate crisis that results in environmental shifts that displace entire cities. In that way, Hunter’s novel and the film adaptation feel true and looming. This isn’t a distant future with imagined technology. It’s now, almost. What makes the story so impactful is the feeling that you could be Comer’s character, or Fry’s. Or any of them. Your life could be reduced to the contents of a backpack. You might do the things these characters do to survive. It raises questions without overtly asking them, which is the best way to experience a film. It floods over you, like the water in the story, and leaves debris.
After Killing Eve, it’s refreshing to see Comer in a more subtle role. She’s captivating in everything, but as a terrified new mom, untethered from her life, she’s undeniable. Those with children will certainly have a visceral response to the film, which organically grows the mother-child relationship between the character and her new son. They learn from each other as they are forced to survive in harsh conditions, and there’s an intimate solace created between the two. Hunter’s writing is beautifully sparse and Belo aims for something similar with the camera. Her shots are precise and striking, especially when capturing Comer amid an expanse of empty landscape.
The film, like the novel, isn’t really about the end of the world. It’s about an unthinkable occurrence and how we rise to the challenge. It’s about what we do when we get through it. The title is unwieldy, but it’s purposeful. There’s always something we have to climb or overcome, bringing us to a new beginning. And then we begin again from there. The End We Start From isn’t a big, blockbuster disaster movie. It’s quiet and sometimes still and it asks you to think about our existence. But it’s also meaningful, finding unlikely splendor in the midst of destruction.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.