Ethel & Ernest
Updated: Apr 12, 2019
Ethel & Ernest (2016) is a true story that follows the steadfast relationship between the parents of the famous illustrator Raymond Briggs from its beginning, in 1928, to its end, in 1975.
Briggs originally published a graphic novel of the same name, which became a best seller, in 1998. Briggs is most well-known for his Christmas tale, The Snowman. It is inspirational to see a couple staying strong as a team during various extreme social and political changes that took place throughout their 47-year-long relationship; such as WWII, the introduction of the welfare state and technological developments like the introduction of TV etc. This is something that can be appreciated considering the apparent fragility of marriages in our current society. According to Eurostat, as of 2015, approximately 39% of marriages end in divorce in the UK.
‘Forty years of change. One enduring love.’ - Ethel & Ernest
Whilst Raymond Briggs himself is featured in this film, the focus always remains on his parents and their reactions to the changing world around them. However, what is so wonderful is that no matter what changes occur, the love between husband and wife is unchanged. This film is essentially a collection of short yet undoubtedly important moments in the life of this couple; from the buying of their first house to their building of an Anderson bomb shelter. There is nothing extra-ordinary about this couple, but this makes their story so much more charming.
Ethel and Ernest are well-fleshed characters, most likely due to the fact that they are based on real people known very well by the creator. Ethel is a caring woman yet unbelievably unaware when it comes to politics, and Ernest is a lovable cockney joker with many songs to share. The voice-acting by Brenda Blethyn (Ethel) and Jim Broadbent (Ernest) is rather good. Broadbent’s cockney accent is surprisingly well done and endearing. Furthermore, both Broadbent and Blethyn manage to showcase signs of fragility and ageing via their voice work.
The soundtrack of the film is rather wholesome and consistent, the tracks all sound relatively similar but some change slightly to fit the time period. Some tracks vary by sounding slightly jazzier in the 1950s and some are a bit more psychedelic in the 1970s. I wouldn’t say the changes are very noticeable all the time but it is a nice detail that’s been considered. In the end credits, images of the real Ethel and Ernest roll to In the Blink Of An Eye by Paul McCartney. The song is very short and simple but one of the lyrics is ‘we hold on to love, with no reason to cry’, and that perfectly sums up the relationship between Ethel and Ernest.
This film is intriguing because it is basically a history lesson but within the context of a maritial relationship. The years that document the couples’ life during and immediately after the Second World War are quite thought-provoking, especially when considering today's political climate where foreign relations everywhere seem to be amuck. Ernest remarks ‘to think that there’ll never be another war’ and Ethel considers nuclear weapons and how war should never be fought using them because the war would be over before it even starts.
At another point there is a statement that more or less says Hindus and Muslims fight like cats and dogs, and this is still relatively true, unfortunately. India and Pakistan are currently considering war with one another, and these are both countries that have a nuclear weapons arsenal. It is interesting to consider how some things have changed with time and how some still remain the same.
Dates are displayed on the screen from the beginning of the story and recur at intervals to show the lapse of time. However, after a certain point, dates are no longer relayed to the viewers and one is left to deduce what the year is by the historical clues given via things like radio announcements or discussions of current politics between Ethel and Ernest. There are a lot of events with dates that I am familiar with but wouldn’t be able to accurately remember off the top of my head, despite studying WWII and the first Labour government for A-level History. For some people, piecing together the timeline might be a bit of a frustrating task, that is if they are interested in the historical relevance of the story in the first place.
Nevertheless, detail and story within the visuals of this film are well planned and sweetly subtle. For example, there is a scene in which a young Raymond Briggs can be seen drawing a snowman, which is a nice nod to the boys eventually successful artistic career. The illustrations and animation in Ethel & Ernest are rather refreshing in their simplicity. Briggs’ artistic style tends to have clear cut lines and bright colours.
Loneliness is the most interesting aspect explored in this story. It is absolutely heart-wrenching to get a small glimpse of what life is like for an elderly person once their children have got on with their lives and their partner, whom they’ve spent more of their life with than without, has died. I feel that the ending is insufficient in providing any closure or definitive feeling of an ‘end’, but then again, how much closure can one get from death, and life does go on after loss. Therefore, can a complaint be made about the fact that this story is too true to real life and not glamorous enough? This seems unfair.
Whilst I think this is a brilliant production, it really depends on what you’re looking to get out of a film; if you enjoy slower paced films that take time to explore everyday life, relationships and history then this is certainly recommended for you. If you’re more entertained by the action-packed, romanticised blockbuster then you can probably give this one a miss.
Age Rating: PG
4 out of 5*