There are multiple shifts in tone throughout How I Live Now (2013). The film is a teenage romance flick, a war drama, and an apocalyptic tale of survival. Each act is approached with its own substantially unique cinematic tone that captures and conveys the feeling of the particular period.
“It’s breathtaking how many tones and themes are skillfully juggled in How I Live Now. Based on Meg Rosoff’s prizewinning young-adult novel, it’s much like the first teenage love it portrays: by turns high-spirited, visceral, tragic and absurd, hitting with the impact of a meteorite.” - Colin Covert, Star Tribune
In the first part of the film, we’re introduced to Daisy (Saoirse Ronan), an angsty teenager sent to England to live with cousins she’s never met. This chunk of the film is shot primarily with handheld cameras. As Daisy is introduced to the beautiful English countryside where her family resides, and as the family plays and frolicks about in their environment, the handheld camera remains to emphasize the whimsy and beauty of the saturated atmosphere and surroundings. It also suits Daisy’s inner neuroses, as she rebels against everything and schizophrenically juggles her mental thoughts; a combination of self-deprecating comments, cliches torn from self-help manifestos and popular magazines, and encouraging words. There’s a brightness and a clarity to all the shots in the film’s first chapter, as Daisy’s barriers break down and her love with Eddie (George MacKay) begins to blossom. It inspires romance, hope, and purpose, and serves as a contrast when juxtaposed with the darker tones that follow.
“The energy of the farm and youngsters is reflected through the use of the frame and camera as the natural colour of the countryside is heightened whilst the use of handheld camera during these scenes extols the joie de vivre of the bubbly young gang.” - Cameron McEwan, Den of Geek
After the bomb goes off, there’s a segue period as the children try to make sense of what happened. When wartime comes, everything gets dark. The color palette fades. The atmosphere changes. Even the actors are photographed in a bland style, highlighting their negatives.
“[Macdonald] has guided his young cast to strong, naturalistic performances, his grainy aesthetic emphasizing their pores and freckles and singular qualities — the distinctive human details that most movies labor to cover up.” - Alan Scherstuhl, The Village Voice
As the scenes in the film go from bad, to worse, to more horrific, the visual style of the film changes in parallel. Everything gets darker, grainier, and bleakly colored. Macdonald’s camera choices and colorization do a tremendous job of transforming a young adult love story into a post-apocalyptic horror piece, without losing touch of either genre in the process.
By the film’s final scenes, we’re returned to visuals more reminiscent of the narrative’s beginning: Daisy cares for the ill Eddie while basked in sunlight and color, much the same as their introduction. It’s symbolic of Daisy’s character journey throughout the piece, and the overall thematic concepts of the film as a whole.