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Ethel & Ernest (2016)

The books of graphic novel artist Raymond Briggs have inspired some of the UK's most beloved animated works. Ever since The Snowman first flew onto television screens back in 1982, Briggs has held a special place in the hearts of Brits of all ages. As well as such beloved family fare, his books have also included works aimed at adult audiences, such as When The Wind Blows- a fable for the nuclear age adapted into Jimmy T Murakami's 1986 feature film of the same name. His most personal work, however, is undoubtedly 1998's Ethel & Ernest, his semi-autobiographical story based on the relationship between his parents. This story has become the latest to be adapted to screen, in this animated drama from Lupus Films.

Directed by Roger Mainwood (a veteran of the screen adaptation of Briggs' past works from The Snowman on) the hand-drawn feature premiered at last year's London Film Festival and received a short cinema run before screening on primetime BBC One over the Christmas period.

Ethel & Ernest recounts the true story of his parents' relationship, through their courtship and marriage. through the birth of their only son Raymond and beyond through forty years. It opens in 1928 London, where cheeky milkman Ernest Briggs woos Ethel, the maid of an upper-class family. Their marriage unfolds against the key events of the twentieth century, with the shadow of coming war playing a big part of the earlier part of the film. Eventually (spoilers for real-life history) the Second World War breaks out and the couple must reluctantly send young Raymond away from London during the Blitz, while Ernest serves as an Air-raid Warden.

The film follows in the footsteps of the previous adaptations, in perfectly capturing the art-style of Briggs' original books for the screen. Even by those standards though, this film is absolutely beautiful, presenting a stunning recreation of London life throughout the time period. The sense of time and place the film creates is wonderfully evocative. It has all the hand-drawn charm of the original cel-animated TV specials and films, but also employs some excellently integrated (and extremely subtle) CG for elements such as vehicles and effects to make something both at once timeless and at the forefront of modern 2D animation. Every frame here is a work of art.

The animation itself is only part of what makes this such an unforgettable experience, however. What really shines here is the story-telling and the characterisation. The film deftly works in the events of the wider world in a way that feels completely natural. Ernest witnesses the world first through the pages of his newspaper, then through "the wireless" and eventually through the new-fangled television. They witness the world change around them, but the film focusses on the smaller, everyday happenings in their lives. Just like real life, it involves ups and downs, laughter and tears.

It is only with the outbreak of war that external events really have a direct effect on the lives of the family. It is surprisingly unflinching in its depiction of how hard (and terrifying) life in London was during the war, with citizens under the bombardment of Hitler's warplanes. The wartime scenes are extremely well executed and are very effective at showing how everyday life was impacted by the war.

Best of all though is the warm depiction of the central characters- and the believability of their relationship. Ernest is a cheery, chirpy cockney with a bright outlook, while Ethel has an intelligence that belies her naivety and lack of formal education.  They are brought to life with such warmth and affection that they are impossible not to love. This is achieved through a perfect coming together of the animation and the pitch-perfect voice performances of  Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn in the titular roles. They are able to convincingly portray the characters throughout the passing of years as well, which is no meant feat.

The film shows life in all its riches and is often very funny. Briggs' sense of humour can be surprisingly earthy at times, with some jokes here that will fly over the head of the younger members of the audience.

It also shows the other side of life and is frequently extremely moving. Whether dealing with their early problems starting a family or the fallout of the war, it doesn't shy away from showing that is not all a bed of roses.

[The following contains allusions to the film's ending that may be considered spoilers, please proceed with caution and skip the next paragraph if you want to avoid that]

This is most evident as we move into the film's final act, which quite frankly is not easy to watch. Given the heartwarming feel of the majority of the film, the fact that the depiction of certain events are quite so unflinching is quite a shock to the system. Raymond Briggs is no stranger to making audiences cry but this feels like it almost is taking it to the next level, and you may want to consider this before showing it to younger audiences. Although, much like that sequence in Pixar's Up this is much more likely to have that emotional resonance with adults than kids. It is a testament to the strength of the characters that it proves to be quite as heartbreaking as it does.

[Potential spoilers end]

When all is said and done Ethel & Ernest is nothing short of a masterpiece. This stands as an affectionate portrait, of not only the titular characters but of decent people everywhere. This is a stunning film that deserves to be seen by anyone who truly appreciates animation for adult audiences in its truest sense.

95 min