Ethel and Ernest (2016)

A beautiful, very moving animation of Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel Ethel and Ernest, voiced by Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn. It’s a tribute to his parents and a 20th century social history.

Ordinary People

by Alexa Dalby

Ethel and Ernest

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Ethel and Ernest Briggs were Raymond Briggs’ parents and this beautifully animated version of his graphic novel Ethel and Ernest is his very moving tribute to them.

Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn voice the title characters from their first meeting and courtship in 1928, when Ethel is a lady’s maid and Ernest is a milkman, a job he continues to do all his life, to their deaths within a few months of each other in 1971. In the 40 years in between, we see their quiet love for each other in their modest, suburban world, in the house they bought for the enormous mortgage of £875. They carry on with their unassuming lives through world events that are reflected through their eyes – the coming of World War II, the Blitz, where Ernest bravely works as a volunteer fireman, the bombing of their house, the coming of the national health service and the welfare state.

It’s a social history of 20th century Britain seen through the prism of the everyday life of two decent, ordinary people, Ernest with his left-leaning opinions and Ethel with her middle-class aspirations. Along the way, from the ’20s to the ’70s, we see the birth of their son Raymond (voiced by Luke Treadaway, A Street Cat Named Bob), their only child, their ambitions for him, and their disappointment at his determination to go to art school and their regret – “He’ll never make a living at it” – and his bohemian phase in the Sixties. Ultimately, Briggs doesn’t hide from revealing issues about his own life and from unflinchingly depicting the deaths of his parents.

Animation director Peter Dodd and art director Robin Shaw have captured the style of Briggs’ original illustrations, especially his very expressive characters. It’s directed by Roger Mainwood. Attention to period detail is precise and beautiful – the furnishings and the kitchen fittings of that era, even the design of the Christmas cards – along with the attitudes of the time, everything is captured perfectly.

The animated version of Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel The Snowman is a Christmas classic. The characters in his When the Wind Blows, which depicts a bleak nuclear winter for the ordinary person, are also based on his parents, though more loosely. His unique style of homeliness with an edge, ordinary lives charged with political content, told with quiet humour, has reached its highest point so far in the deeply affecting Ethel and Ernest and is another classic in the making.

Ethel and Ernest had its World Premiere at the 60th BFI London Film Festival 2016 and is released on 28 October 2016 in the UK.

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