Bringing a child into a desolate, flooded, famine-ridden land, which happens to be England, is an overwhelming burden for the nameless person Jodie Comer plays in The End We Start From. Apocalypse and motherhood befall her simultaneously – the very moment her waters break, a deluge wrecks her home in London, and for the rest of the film, she’s seeking higher ground, food, shelter, safety and whatever headspace she can snatch. So are most people in the country.
Can maternity itself feel like the end of the world? Megan Hunter’s slim debut novel from 2017 posed the question. Mahalia Belo’s arresting adaptation, with a thoughtful script by the reliably great Alice Birch (Lady Macbeth, Mothering Sunday), finds ways to ask it even more intensely, while giving us the specific contours of a post-apocalyptic survival drama – think “Children of Women” – and getting plenty of grit beneath its fingernails.
Comer, who has certainly earned the right to carry a film by now, lives up to every expectation. Indeed, she finally shakes off Killing Eve, which mustn’t be allowed to stand as her defining role – there’s so much, surely, still to come. Speaking in her natural Scouse accent here, and tensing her shoulders determinedly with the infant strapped to her chest, she’s tremendous from first to last.
The baby’s father (Joel Fry) has a plan: though it’s bedlam on the roads, they manage to get north, and hole up with his parents (Mark Strong, Nina Sosanya) for the first few weeks. Their well-stocked larder soon depletes to nothing, in a simple splicing of two shots, typical of this director’s artful economy. She moves the camera with Claire Denis-esque poeticism, and deploys a gorgeous score by Anna Meredith, which is very Terrence Malicky in its cathedral grandeur.
With her actors, Belo captures moments of staggering grief that are moving in their restraint: we deal, usually, with the stricken aftermath. We guess that Comer will be going it alone from a certain point, but then she finds new allies, including a fellow mother at a shelter (a sterling Katherine Waterston) and the members of a sparse island commune committed to forgetting the past, a mindset our heroine finds all too difficult. Benedict Cumberbatch gets a seven-minute-long cameo as a nomadic stranger who’s lost everything, and can barely describe when and how: he’s as good as Robert Duvall was in The Road, which is saying a lot.
The film depicts an internal tug-of-war in this freshly unstable world order: will Comer’s character retrace her steps, or try to build something new? What and where might that be, and with whom? In the context of her life, is the baby a new chapter, or a whole new book? And is this postpartum cataclysm likely to endure as simply the new way of things?
There are stretches of eloquent respite, and beautiful scenes in the flooded environs of St Paul’s, with the roads turned into Venetian waterways. But bursts of violence, terrorism and feral desperation punctuate the story. The shelter midway offers one particular model for female camaraderie, but like the Mennonite enclave in Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, such spaces are never entirely safe from ravage.
The episodic structure can be familiar, but serious-mindedness wins out over genre flourishes: if there’s a harrowing action film adjacent to this somewhere, it’s happening off-screen. Instead we get a dramatically sturdy string of hopeful hellos and upsetting goodbyes, and a main character who never ceases to be compelling.
At times, she’s rattling the bars of her cage, in raging frustration; then she’s on the run, finding lioness resilience she didn’t know she had. Comer pulls you into the whole experience – though Belo is very much her equal in making it mean something. It’s nourishing, frequently moving, and ends with heroic understatement, where a cruder film would have gone all out for the heartstrings.
15 cert, 102 min. In cinemas from Jan 19