Films centered around the apocalypse are famously known for depicting disastrous nightmare scenarios with dramatic visuals of collapsing buildings, cities on fire, looting survivors, and so forth. We often construct an image of what the end of the world might look like in a violent, hopeless, and fiery manner that also usually occurs overnight. The truth is that the literal end of modern civilization as we know it could very well look like these terrifying images, or perhaps even worse. But there’s a possibility that the apocalypse could be a much more gradual and subtle process, such as depicted in director Mahalia Belo’s feature film debut, The End We Start From.
British playwright and screenwriter Alice Birch (The Wonder, Succession) adapts author Megan Hunter’s 2017 sci-fi novel of the same name. With such dynamic female talent behind the scenes, The End We Start From is all the more intriguing as it depicts disaster through the female gaze as we follow the intimate perspective of a woman survivor. Jodie Comer (Killing Eve, The Last Duel) stars as this unnamed female protagonist who we first meet in the UK going into labor with her first child alone and terrified in a slowly flooding house. She and assumedly the rest of the globe are just beginning to experience the end of times due to an ever-looming ecological crisis. Catastrophic floods are destroying London, sending people to higher ground and into shelters across the country.
Jodie’s character experiences unimaginable fear and uncertainty in the first weeks of her child being born, whom she and her partner lovingly name Zeb. She is soon forced to separate from her unnamed partner, played by Joel Fry (Cruella, Our Flag Means Death), after tragedy strikes his father (Mark Strong) and mother (Nina Sosanya) and they are rushed into a safe house, parting ways for the foreseeable future. It’s in this desperate state that Comer finds comfort in another nameless woman, played by Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts, Alien: Covenant), seeking safety in the same shelter. Just like Comer, Waterston is also an inexperienced mother with a newborn.
Comer and Waterston quickly grow as friends, but their lives are once again quickly disrupted when their shelter is unexpectedly attacked, leaving them with no choice but to flee on foot. Together, they attempt to navigate motherhood as they seek refuge in a dystopian society while constantly trying to obtain the basic necessities for their young. Neither of them has ever faced such a grueling challenge, however, it grows their bond to an immeasurable amount and allows them to appreciate the importance of precious human connection.
The performances throughout The End We Start From are strikingly raw and humanistic. Joel Fry and Benedict Cumberbatch have small yet impactful roles that affect the main women of the film in more grandiose ways than might seem on the surface. Their wonderfully solid portrayals pay tribute to the many ways in which people can drive and inspire us, even if they just pass through our lives for a brief time. Katherine Waterston stands out in her part as the protagonist’s close friend and confidant. She serves as charming comedic relief to the audience as well as Comer’s character. Waterston provides a sturdy shoulder to lean on and represents the platonic intimacy that can bloom between two individuals that can be just as, if not more, profound than romantic relationships.
Then there’s the astounding Jodie Comer, who stuns in yet another knockout role. The End We Start From showcases her range and utter commitment to immersing herself in an unrecognizable character. Comer displays all the exhaustion and determination, both physically and mentally, of a survivalist and there is not a moment where you doubt the authenticity of her performance. Between her skillset and Mahalia Belo’s delicate direction, together they create something truly special in bringing the main protagonist to life.
Cinematographer Suzie Lavelle (Normal People) captures an intimate viewing experience as we are brought up close and personal with the characters. The fatigue and despair on their faces, as well as the slight changes in expression, are all vivid on the screen. This magnifies the care we feel for the refugees on screen as it’s nearly impossible not to be pulled in by the atmospheric and immersive camerawork. In addition to this, the cinematography is eye-catching and beautifully unique in the way that Lavelle uses a plethora of unconventional angles to create a sense of Mother Nature taking back the Earth. Reflections and the recurring motif of flooding are also used to represent the deepening crisis the characters endure every day – barely being able to keep their heads above the rising floodwaters.
There’s a whole lot The End We Start From gets right, from its technical execution to the heartbreaking performances on display, though it’s not without flaws. Where the film falters at times is with its pacing as it has a tendency to drag its feet in the second act, shuffling for a few scenes before picking up the pace again. This isn’t an enormous hindrance to the overall effectiveness of the story, but there is no doubt the movie would ultimately benefit from being trimmed down to a slightly tighter runtime.
The End We Start From may center around the collapse of society due to an inevitable environmental crisis with subtle political commentary throughout, but there are more delicate themes of perhaps more grand importance at play here. Through her impressive directorial feature debut, Mahalia Belo stresses the strength of the human spirit and the remarkable resilience people hold within them when put to the ultimate test. Jodie Comer’s raw talent, a moving script, and passionate direction propel The End We Start From to serve as a powerful testament to the resiliency of mankind and how, despite a seemingly bleak world, there is always hope present. Even in the face of catastrophe, the persistence of life continues nonetheless.