Toronto 2023 Review: THE END WE START FROM, Motherhood at the End of the World
As we begin to see, it feels almost weekly, 'natural' (i.e. created by human activity) disasters happening around the world - floods, fires, you name it - you would be hard-pressed not think about what you would do with you were caught in such a disaster. What would you pack? Where would you go? To whom could you turn for help? At what point could you leave a loved on behind?
In her feature debut, director Mahalia Belo, with a script by playwright and screenwriter Alice Birch (Lady Macbeth, The Wonder) based on the novel by Megan Hunter, follows this woman's story as she must constantly be aware of the physical, while the space and seemingly endless time around her also force to contemplate the more philosophical nature of what her existence will mean with this great shift in civilization.
The Woman (Jodie Comer) finds herself giving birth to her first child on the day a flood renders London unlivable. Unable to return home, unable to even stay in the hospital, she and her husband (Joel Fry) are at least somewhat luckier than most. HIs parents lives on higher ground outside the city, and despite a rocky start, they are able to take refuge with them. But those first months of apocalypse are the direst - it takes too much time to grow the necessary food, to have the supplies necessary to take care of millions of displaced people - and the new parents are forced to make drastic decisions for the sake of their baby.
Starting from a privileged position, it's easy for the Woman to enter a (albeit relatively brief) sense of security. And she, especially like her kind mother-in-law (Nina Sosanya) want to believe in the good of other people. But people are desperate and starving - this will make some commit selfish and violent acts - sometimes with remorse, but often not. If she only had herself to look after, it might be fine - but a baby means responsibility, and a baby means you both must trust, and cannot trust, anyone.
It would be impossible for any story to fully encompass every aspect the human experience of such a disaster into one tale (or at least in one film), so the focus on this story is motherhood: essentially, what kind of mother would you be if you literally hard to start from scratch. For someone whose career was hairdressing, she knows she's hardly equipped - though the film doesn't really make finding diapers or clothing for her growing baby an issue, which feels a little odd, given how essential that would be to its survival. Finding food for the Woman so she can then feed her breastfeed her child is covered, though again, that and fresh water seem to be available enough, oddly. She also managed to keep herself relatively ready and with a pack to carry necessities.
But this a story that takes a more contemplative direction. In these quietly (mostly) frightening days, who can she turn to for comfort and strength? Perhaps with another mother (Kate Waterston), also without a partner, who at least has an idea of where they can make a new life. What surrounds them both, then, is there children, and emptiness. Not a subtle symbol of what motherhood, especially in its early months, ends up being: it's just you and the baby, you are their food, their shelter, their support, their everything. Like it or not, your life revolves around them.
Belo wants us to understand the extreme shift that the Woman is under, and how that changes how she must approach her new role in this world, and what kind of mother she will become. And sometimes this works: we see how hard it is for the Woman to fully process what has happened, her refusal to be separated from her partner, the times when her son is her only joy, and the times when she likely contemplates putting him down and running away. Comer knows how to play this subtleties with a slight raise of her eyes or the shake of her hands. What does the world mean anymore with just her and her son?
Though the ending maybe falls a bit flat and trite, The End We Start From feels quite relevant, especially to western audiences who might think themselves removed and immune from such terrible and life-shattering events. Comer holds strong ground as a woman who must truly learn from scratch.
The End We Start From
- Mahalia Belo
- Alice Birch
- Megan Hunter
- Ramanique Ahluwalia
- Elena Bielova
- Ruth Clarson