If it were angled more traditionally, The End We Start From could have been a Hollywood disaster movie. It would be about a bearded, tender-hearted hero, whose partner gives birth just as unprecedented flood waters consume their London home. He’d take them to his parents’s house, on higher ground, but would find only waning food stocks, hysterical crowds, and violent looters. His handsome face would become specked with blood. He would flee, before eventually finding a safe refuge for his wife and child. He, though, would continue onward, making the perilous journey out into a mad, decayed society.
All of this does actually take place in The End We Start From. Yet we’re shown it from an entirely different perspective. Adapting Megan Hunter’s slim, lyrical 2017 novel of the same name, director Mahalia Belo and screenwriter Alice Birch focus not on that archetypal intrepid dad, but his partner. It means that Belo and Birch, and their star Jodie Comer, breathe life and fire into the mothers typically left stagnant on the apocalypse’s sidelines.
The concept here is a little more potent than any individual scene, since there’s a tendency to undercut raw emotion with a tidy metaphor. But Comer – who, on the back of Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, is marching steadily towards film stardom – gracefully draws attention back to the core of Hunter’s story. We find a woman faced with the monstrous world she’s created for her child, afraid that love will never be enough to conquer it.
Belo’s film begins with the sight of maternal comforts drowned out by climate change’s new normal: Comer’s woman, unnamed and pregnant, collapses against the walls of her home. The contractions have kicked in. Meanwhile, behind her, the first tendrils of flood water slip beneath the front door. She reaches the hospital in time, only to be told to evacuate – first into the countryside, and then on to a shelter, where she’s separated from her partner (Joel Fry) and meets another woman with a baby (Katherine Waterston), who was abandoned by the child’s father before ecological mayhem even had a chance to set in.
Comer hopscotches between deploying hardened survival instincts and wanting, vainly, to create a tiny idyll of innocence around her child. Yet there’s something just as, if not more, arresting about Waterston, who plays a cheery, rallying force, eager to care for all four of them and quick to initiate a Dirty Dancing singalong. But if you pause and really look at her, there’s a whole world of tragedy in her deep, brown eyes.
Since all the pure action – the rushing waters and violent confrontations – take place offscreen, we’re left to sit with these women, the next generation bundled in their arms. They don’t know who to mourn and what to build from, but grief is grief, life continues, and babies still need to feed. Belo returns repeatedly to haunted visions and flashbacks, and has Comer’s character suffer a breakdown while playing peekaboo with her child, the words “Where am I?” taking on a sudden, sobbed symbolism. It’s a little on the nose. A moment of rest on these actors’ features tells us everything we need to know about their pain.
Dir: Mahalia Belo. Starring: Jodie Comer, Katherine Waterston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Joel Fry, Gina McKee, Nina Sosanya. 15, 101 minutes.
‘The End We Start From’ is in cinemas from 19 January