The cartoonist Raymond Briggs decided to pay tribute to his parents in comic book form, detailing their lives from when they first met in 1928 to when they eventually passed away over forty years later, within months of one another. He admits they would probably not be entirely impressed with his efforts, pointing out that they did not happen in exactly that way, but maybe this book is as much for him to depict them as he remembers, and so we begin with Ethel (voiced by Brenda Blethyn) in her thirties and working as a maid in a London town house, where every morning she would be disappointed if she did not see Ernest (Jim Broadbent) ride by on his bicycle and give her a friendly wave on the journey to his job...
Briggs had made a career in books for children, but he had dabbled in more accessible work for grown-ups as well, and since his output was so carefully drawn and plotted there had always been an appeal for all ages as everyone who liked a story well told and delivered would find much to appreciate. When the Wind Blows had been his most adult work, placing an elderly couple patterned after his parents in a scenario where nuclear war struck Britain, then showing the distressing aftermath as they deteriorated, and that had been made into what was many people's candidate for the most depressing cartoon film ever created, but Ethel & Ernest was far less sensational in its narrative.
Not that sensational things did not happen, as both of them had also endured war when the conflict began in 1939, which naturally took up a fair-sized stretch of the movie. But in spite of major events taking place and influencing their lives, the tone was studied in its mundanity, making a virtue of its ordinariness and refusing to dress up anything further than it really needed to be: only occasionally would the screen produce an image that was more stylised to make a point, such as when the Second World War was announced and we see the Briggs family in a spotlight amidst the darkness. But there was a sense that everything that occurred, earth-shattering or on a far smaller scale, was approached with the same mindset by the couple.
It was as if they could grumble or be pleased at whatever life threw at them, but they took it all in their stride as a fact of life, so for instance they accepted that Ethel could not have any more children after Raymond because any more childbirth would kill her, it was a source of heartache but that spirit that saw them concentrate on the things they could influence was more prevalent. Not that they lived their existence in precisely the same demeanour throughout, as Ethel was frequently seen in tears, though that may have been because the author chose to highlight those happenings where she would have a bigger reaction to make for a more dramatic experience within the parameters of the sheer ordinariness he was keen to convey, and that was admittedly nicely conjured up by director Roger Mainwood.
Mainwood had worked in animation for some time, sometimes with Briggs, most notably with the author's Christmas television classic The Snowman which has touched generations every year since its debut in the early eighties, and it was clear the aim here was to similarly bring the audience to tears by the close of the story. If you had a problem with that, or thought you would before watching it, rest assured there was little sentimental about Ethel & Ernest, it told its tale with unadorned plainness for much of the time, and the matter of watching such an everyday slice of history put across in an animated style contained a novelty all its own. It was true that you could feel Raymond's frustration with his parents as he got older and their views were stuck in the era they grew up in rather than moving with the times that were galloping forward apace and leaving them behind, but when they did finally leave for good, it was something that happened to everyone, yet nevertheless remained moving, probably because it was so easy to relate to for almost everyone watching. Music by Carl Davis.