The parents of beloved British illustrator and children’s book writer Raymond Briggs were the generation before Britain’s “Greatest Generation,” but they went through the same Great Depression and Second World War. They always kept their chins up and a stiff upper lip, but it was almost too much for them to bear when they learned their only son was transferring to art school. Briggs told their deceptively simple, emotionally resonant story in a bestselling graphic novel that Roger Mainwood adapted as the BBC-BFI-produced animated feature Ethel & Ernest (trailer here), which officially qualified for Academy Award consideration.
Ernest Briggs will work as a milkman for thirty-seven years, while Ethel, a former lady’s maid, toils as a clerk, but she chafes at the suggestion they are working class or “common laborers.” She votes Conservative and he supports Labour, but they both generally agree Churchill is the best man for the job during WWII. These were difficult years for the Briggs, because they were forced to send their only son Raymond to live with his kindly spinster aunts in the country, for his own safety. As a volunteer fireman, Briggs also witnesses the horrors of war first-hand and have a few close scrapes of his own. Yet, these sequences are by far the strongest of the film.
Of course, the Briggs continue to carry on, watching Twentieth Century history unfold from the vantage point of their cozy Wimbledon Park home. Churchill will be voted out and then triumphantly return, man will walk on the Moon, and Margaret Thatcher will stand for office. However, they are more concerned about the employment prospects for their slightly wayward artist son and his unruly hair.
E&E is a gentle film that gives voice to characters that are often overlooked in media, falling in between tony dramas like Downton Abbey and grubby melodramas, such as EastEnders. Conservative in temperament, they always maintained decorum—and in Ernest’s case, he was a Labour man who actually worked. Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn are absolutely pitch-perfect as the Briggses. You can always hear in their voices a hopefully optimism tempered by their past disappointments and modest expectations.
The hand-drawn animation is nostalgic, in a sophisticated way, in keeping with Raymond Briggs’ original illustrations. It is a handsome film, nicely supported by Carl Davis’s pleasant, era-appropriate score. Ethel & Ernest also features “In the Blink of an Eye,” penned and performed by Sir Paul McCartney. Frankly, it is one of his best tunes in years and it hits all the film’s themes square on the nose, so it is rather baffling that it wasn’t submitted for best original song. Seriously, he was one of the Beatles. Remember?