British animation feature film “Ethel & Ernest” is about one ordinary couple who lived together for more than 40 years. Based on Raymond Briggs’ acclaimed graphic novel which was based on the life story of his parents in real life, the film works as a heartfelt drama filled with many small lovely moments to cherish, and it is particularly poignant when its two main characters later come to the eventual end point of their long marital relationship.
After its prologue scene showing Briggs reflecting on his parents, the movie proceeds to a part describing how his parents Ernest (voiced by Jim Broadbent) and Ethel (voiced by Brenda Blethyn) became familiar to each other in London, 1928. Whenever he goes to his workplace, Ernest usually passes by an upper-class residence where Ethel has worked as a maid, and they get fond of each other although they have merely recognized each other without formal introduction. In the end, Ernest makes an active forward step toward to Ethel on one day, and, without any hesitation, she agrees to have an evening movie date with him.
Shortly after Ethel quits her job, Ernest marries her, and they subsequently move together to a house located in a suburban area outside London. Although the house does not look exactly nice, it is better than their former residences at least, and they are ready to make their new place happier and cozier. She begins to take care of the house as your average housewife, and he works as a milkman in their neighborhood while occasionally fixing things for his dear wife.
Of course, they hope to have children someday, but it turns out to be not so easy for them. Even after two years, Ethel shows no sign of pregnancy, and she becomes worried as she is approaching to 40. Eventually, she gets pregnant, and she gives birth to her son several months later, but their doctor tells Ernest that she cannot have a child anymore due to her age.
Anyway, Ethel and Ernest are happy to see their son growing up day by day, but, as often reflected by what he reads from newspaper or they hear from radio, the gloom of the World War II is approaching to them and many other people in Britain and Europe step by step. Things quickly become quite serious when the war eventually begins in 1939, and Ethel and Ernest have to send their son away to a rural area for his safety.
As they and others prepare for the war and then try to endure it, the film often gives us some serious moments as required while not wholly losing its sense of humor. It is sometimes amusing to see their several safety measures including a makeshift shelter and gas masks, but we are also reminded that it was indeed a dangerous and fearful time for everyone in Britain. While working as a volunteer fireman, Ernest goes through some devastating experiences, and Ethel is always someone he can lean on.
As the situation becomes more hopeful a few years later, they go to see their son, and they are later permitted to spend some time with him. There is still considerable danger as reflected by when Ernest and his son luckily avoid a sudden threat crashing down from the sky, but everyone becomes more optimistic than before, and the war eventually ends in 1945.
The rest of the story focuses on how Ethel and Ernest’s life goes through rapid social changes after the war. While Ethel continues to do housework as usual, Ernest begins to drive a vehicle for his milk delivery, and they soon come to have not only their own car but also a TV. They sometimes disagree with each other on political matters, but it is just the mild, affectionate bicker between them, and they feel happy together as before.
In case of their son, Ethel and Ernest surely expect a lot from him, but then they are surprised and disappointed when their son announces to his parents that he is going to an art school instead of more supposedly prestigious schools like Oxford and Cambridge, and that is just the beginning of the generation gap between him and his parents. When he introduces his parents to his girlfriend who is going to be his wife, the mood is pretty awkward to say the least, but Ethel and Ernest accept what their son is going to do with his life – including his understandable decision for not having a child with his wife.
Meanwhile, Ethel and Ernest feel more of their aging status. As they are about to enter the 1970s, Ethel becomes more weakened than before, and then there comes a heartbreaking moment when her mind turns out to be not as keen as before. Wisely avoiding any sappy sentimentality, the movie calmly and quietly handles the following scenes, and that is why it is touching to see a number of photographs shown during the end credits.
“Ethel & Ernest” is directed by Roger Mainwood, who also adapted Briggs’ graphic novel for the film. This is his first animation feature film, and he did a competent job of vividly presenting Briggs’ story and characters. Like any good cell animation film, the film is distinctive in terms of mood and details, and Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn are also fine in their respective voice performances. Although its achievement is rather modest, this is a charming crowd pleaser nonetheless, and it is certainly a better alternative to those run-of-the-mill blockbuster digital animation films.