Director Mahalia Belo’s feature debut, The End We Start From, is a poetic and layered look at motherhood and resilience in the face of unexpected disaster and unbelievable odds. Her confident and creative direction proves an excellent creative fit for this adaptation of Megan Hunter’s haunting novella, but it is Jodie Comer’s riveting central performance that proves truly unforgettable.
In the not-too-distant future, London and the rest of England are hit by catastrophic flooding. Brought on by the climate crisis, the disaster drives a new mother (Comer), her partner (Joel Fry) and their 2-day-old son out of the city to shelter with family. But there is no escaping the widening collapse of infrastructure and lack of supplies. As the situation worsens, the family is split apart and the young mother is forced to find a way to save herself and her son, and ultimately to try and rebuild a life in the face of a new world.
There’s an intimacy to the storytelling here that allows for a deeper understanding of what it means to cope and survive. Where most disaster films would focus on the what and the why, Alice Birch’s script focuses on the who. That simple shift, which reflects Hunter’s original story, makes all the difference and elevates what could easily fall into a by-the-numbers, studio production. The characters have no names – a deliberate choice by both author and screenwriter – and the result is an uncomfortable relatability. In a summer marred by unprecedented wildfires and flooding, the idea of a similar climate disaster in your home or your city is no longer a kind of science fiction or fantasy. The film as a whole is effective and uncomfortable not in spite of, but because of, its innate and imminent possibility. The idea that one moment in nature could upend your world with little to no warning is disturbingly real.
Belo, and cinematographer Suzie Lavelle, allow the camera lens to reflect that serious disruption of the mother’s world, and use light and water to great effects throughout to make the world around her seem both never-ending and all too small. The purposeful aesthetic of the film is always interesting – quietly beautiful and devastating in equal measure – but never so notable that it distracts from the narrative at hand. It’s the perfect balance of atmosphere, story and emotion.
But what really lifts this film into rarified territory is the totally committed, vulnerable, and resilient performance from Comer. Never off screen for more than a few seconds, the enormity of this unprecedented disaster is communicated almost exclusively through her reactions. The tension and escalating fear show clearly on her face, as does the burgeoning, tentative light of hope. When we at last reach a long-awaited moment of emotional catharsis, we’re so in tune with her that we breathe just as clearly and deeply as she does. The role requires both physical and mental strength, alongside the ability to effectively battle the elements and conflicting emotions, and Comer manages it all effortlessly.
She’s assisted by a host of supporting actors, all of whom do the utmost with their small but integral parts of the story. Fry is stellar as the partner whose strength deserts him in the face of unimaginable tragedy, but who still finds it within himself to do what he thinks is best for his young family. Benedict Cumberbatch (also a producer on the film) proves to be the right man at the right time, providing a lifeline and fleeting support just when it’s needed most. When things feel at their very bleakest, his character provides proof that kindness can be found at even the darkest of moments – all while battling devastating losses of his own. But it’s Katherine Waterston who leaves the biggest impression. Like Comer, she plays a young mother trying to survive on her own. Watching the two form a necessary, yet beautiful support system that coalesces just when each needs it most provides a surprising emotional beat – an ode to female friendship in its purest form.
The End We Start From is both a terrifying cautionary tale and a tribute to the resilience of humanity, and of women in particular. Together Belo and Comer take Hunter’s already impressive work and give it even more texture and life, proving that a dystopian future doesn’t have to look all that different from our current one. It’s a film that allows us a window into how we all might cope in the face of disaster and gives us hope that we might face it with equal tenacity and drive to survive.