TORONTO – There always seems to be this assumption in Hollywood that when the end of the world comes it will be quick. A nuclear holocaust will destroy the environment in hours or a massive space object will send civilization back into the dark ages in an instant. But chances are it will begin and end slower than you might think. And that’s one of the most refreshing aspects of Mahalia Belo’s “The End We Start From,” which debuted at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival this past weekend.
Adapted by Alice Birch from Megan Hunter’s novel of the same name, the movie demonstrates what could happen to an island like the United Kingdom when a rainstorm simply won’t stop. In fact, it rains so much that the streets of London begin to flood, houses in the lowlands become almost completely submerged and tensions rise among the populace. Just check out the recent news reports of flooding disasters in Greece and Libya and this isn’t that far off. And Belo warns you what is coming.
The film begins from the perspective of a bathtub with a woman in the background (Jodie Comer, superb) shown from the waist down. Having a casual conversation on the telephone, she turns the faucet on and drops a bath bomb into the tub. The water begins to rise until even she isn’t visible anymore. Oh yes, something ominous is about to occur. And mere moments later, when this very pregnant woman realizes she’s about to give labor earlier than expected, Belo flips the camera 180 degrees to let you know her world is turning upside down. And not just hers.
As she gives birth it’s clear things are not going well outside the hospital. Water is starting to seep onto the floors and its more hectic than you’d expect for a maternity ward (although, who knows, maybe at British hospitals the maternity ward is right next to the Emergency Room). Her husband* (Joel Fry, quite good) arrives after the birth to let her know the storm is causing massive flooding everywhere and they should head to his parents as quickly as possible. Bello immediately cuts to a shot of highways crammed full of cars trying to get out of London. Oh, and it’s still raining.
*As in the novel, none of the characters in the film are ever named except for the newborn baby.
Radio reports indicate that jurisdictions are trying to keep out evacuees, afraid they will overrun their homes. This forces the couple to haggle with a police officer to enter the village where his family lives. Not very friendly, is it? This development will make you ponder if such a scenario could happen in your vicinity (don’t kid yourself, it absolutely could). Luckily, the father’s parents (Nina Sosanya and Mark Strong, both splendid) are semi-hoarders and have been preparing for a disaster for years. Their beautiful home is filled with a pantry of canned foods and there is a garden full of vegetables. They should be safe for some time. Plus, it has to stop raining at some point, doesn’t it?
It does not.
As the months pass, the quartet of adults finds themselves low on food. Along with his parents, the new father leaves Comer’s character to drive into the village for supplies. No one returns for over a day and the consequences are tragic. People are panicking and social order is breaking down. You can be killed just fighting to get your box of government disaster relief (imagine what would happen on this side of the pond).
Eventually, Comer’s character is forced to leave her husband and enter a government-run shelter to protect both her and the couple’s child. She soon befriends a single mom from the United States (Katherine Waterston, truly fantastic) who has her own baby to protect. The two women bond almost immediately and protect each other from the dangers in the camp. When a militia of armed criminals overruns the shelter for supplies, the pair and their babies are forced to flee for their safety.
As the women’s trek continues, Belo and director of photography Suzie Lavelle collaborate to compose landscapes both stark and beautiful to reinforce the mother’s solitude. It’s been more than six months (maybe a year?) since the rains and flooding began and at this point, the countryside often appears abandoned and post-apocalyptic. But despite having to sleep in the woods or abandoned homes, the pair struggle on trying to keep their spirits high.
When a decent man (Benedict Cumberbatch, solid) tells them about the island commune he’s decided to leave, the women have a choice in front of them. Start a new life in relative safety, or return to the uncertain world of “before.” For Comer’s character, it’s a painful decision.
Although the end is genuinely uncertain, the film’s momentum strangely begins to falter. And what tension there was disappointingly dissipates. It’s a bit surprising considering the captivating events beforehand.
You may also have questions that Bello and Birch have no intention of answering (Where are Britain’s North American allies? Are there massive rains and environmental disasters there too? Is Europe also underwater?) But maybe that doesn’t matter. The depiction is still too close to comfort, especially considering the COVID-19 pandemic, just three years ago. That allegory shouldn’t scare you off, however. This may feel like familiar territory to another U.K.-set disaster film, “Children of Men,” or the recent mini-series “Station Eleven,” but Bellow has crafted something singular here. And you won’t forget it. [B]