There’s a misconception that the British are a stoic people who just might get quite cross in the event of a zombie apocalypse. But the truth is rather different, as was shown in 2005, when six people were hospitalized and a man stabbed when an Ikea store in North London put 500 leather sofas on sale for less than 60 bucks each and a riot ensued.
In that sense, Mahalia Belo’s intriguing debut The End We Start From is very much a British disaster movie, speculating just how quickly the country’s perceived veneer of respectability would evaporate in a crisis. But, more than that, it’s a dreamlike study of what it means to give birth, how life-changing the experience is and the strain it puts on relationships. It would make a great double bill with Children of Men.
When we first meet the Woman (Jodie Comer), she is heavily pregnant and running a bath. The sound of that running water merges with the torrential rain outside, a pitiless deluge that appears to have been falling for days, if not weeks. Her partner R (Joel Fry) checks in by phone, but she is very much alone, desperately mopping up the puddles that are coming in through the cracks in the door. When her water breaks, the Thames bursts its banks too, and the Woman wakes up in hospital, where she has given birth. They call the baby Zeb, and, since London is drowning and they live by the river, they brave the gridlock and drive up north.
This journey, like everything else, is covered with clarity and elliptical brevity; an argument with a policeman at a road closure is a microcosm of what’s happening all over the country as local communities are closing ranks. Nevertheless, because of the baby, they make it through to the secluded, rural home of R’s father and mother (Mark Strong and Nina Sosanya). But even this doesn’t feel right, especially when these other three take off to find food and leave the Woman alone for what seems like days. Where they go is never quite explained, though the gun they take with them does do a bit of talking on their behalf. When we see them again, they are fewer in number. There’s also a lot of blood.
In the meantime, shelters are springing up all over, so R and the Woman drive to one, only to find that they are over-subscribed. R leaves his partner and their baby there and drives away, ostensibly making a noble sacrifice, but the Woman isn’t so sure of that. At the shelter she meets another new mother, O (Katherine Waterston), and together they form quite a bond. When the shelter is attacked – presumably by pirates, targeting the food supplies – the pair take off, with O leading the way to an island commune somewhere off the coast of Scotland (apparently the kind of place where rich people go to “make sourdough”).
Such references instantly evoke memories of the pandemic and life during lockdown, but Belo’s film is above that, constantly scaling down to something much more specific. You can take from it what you like, particularly in terms of social responsibility and the potential outcomes of climate change, or even what we might think we have learned from the whole Covid saga. But The End We Start From is really very clear, and quite devastatingly simple, in terms of what it’s about: Megan Hunter’s novel is sparse enough as it is, but Alice Birch’s script really homes in on the nuances of this sometimes-brutal story of a young woman coming to terms with what it really means to open the Pandora’s box that is parenthood.
Inevitably, the genre premise will be seen as a bit of a bait-and-switch in this regard, since all the action is pretty much offscreen (we only find out after it happens that the Woman’s mother-in-law is an early victim of the mob violence that descends when food supplies run low). But it’s not a genre movie in any normal respect. Rather, Belo’s film is an impressive attempt to show how mundane the apocalypse might be (and, again, in terms of the rain, how British). It also looks at how unheroic most of us would be anyway in the face of that threat: The Woman is a hairdresser on a TV show; R is someone she met in a bar and had a child with because her parents passed away when she young, and her chief reason for wanting to get pregnant is “so I wouldn’t be so afraid of dying.” Like almost all of us, neither has survival skills.
Early in her travels, the Woman meets a traveler (Benedict Cumberbatch), who warns her that all the new communities being formed are just trying to erase the past by behaving as if the crisis had never happened (“I don’t want to forget before,” he says). The Woman will find this out later for herself, after a journey of discovery that will only pay off for audiences who understand that the path she’s on is primarily psychological, and not a hero’s quest in the traditional sense.
It’s not an especially subtle idea, but the seismic shift of giving birth is very rarely addressed as directly as this: The Woman is haunted by memories of her ex (was he really being selfless, or did he just bail on her?) and their fateful first meeting is something that Belo’s film returns to with increasing ambiguity. Is there really no going back to the person she used to be? Is that life over? Is it true when F (Gina McKee), a woman at the commune, tries to dissuade her from ever going home, telling her that the past “isn’t real anymore. What you miss doesn’t exist”?
The overall mood is somber, and it’s gnomic at almost every turn, but The End We Start From represents an aspect of parenthood that is almost never seen in movies: the things that are given up, the idea that giving birth takes away a certain amount of privacy and a serious amount of autonomy (as the Woman finds out when she’s holed up with her in-laws). Roland Emmerich can sleep easy, but there are few disaster movies that get under your skin by being as strange, creative and imaginative as this.
Title: The End We Start From
Festival: Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Director: Mahalia Belo
Screenwriter: Alice Birch
Cast: Jodie Comer, Joel Fry, Mark Strong, Nina Sosanya, Gina McKee, Katherine Waterston, Benedict Cumberbatch
Distributor: Signature Entertainment
Running time: 1 hr 42 min