The End We Start From, the debut feature from acclaimed television director Mahalia Belo, offers all the standard elements of a drama centered on a near-apocalyptic event. Early in the film, unrelenting rain pounds London, the power goes out, and water eventually trickles under the door of an unnamed pregnant woman played by Jodie Comer. She is alone in the house, tending to herself while her husband is out-of-town. Soon that trickle blasts the front door off its hinges, and before we know it she is in labor at the hospital. These scenes in the outside world are appropriately chaotic––and feel like sequences audiences have seen many, many times before.
Such feeling of overfamiliarity creeps up with regularity during The End We Start From. There are some moments that call to mind The Road, others that have a 28 Days Later feel (minus zombies), and a few that are even similar to A Quiet Place (minus aliens). What makes The End We Start From stand out, though, is that it is not really a film about what is happening in the rest of England (or the rest of the world). In Belo’s adaptation of Megan Hunter’s novel, what really matters is a mother, her baby, and––to a lesser extent––her husband and the child’s father (Joel Fry).
Jodie Comer has proven herself a remarkable performer on TV’s Killing Eve, onstage in Prima Facie, and on the big screen in The Last Duel. The End We Start From offers opportunity to sink her teeth into a big, meaty, complex part. Comer more than pulls it off, giving a nuanced and restrained performance: even when The End dissolves into standard post-apocalypse fare, and even during a slightly unbelievable conclusion, Comer keeps the audience engaged.
After giving birth, the woman and her husband begin the long journey out of the city to the home of his parents, nicely played by Nina Sosanya and Mark Strong. There is plenty of food; they have power; and for some time the family is able to ride things out. Tragedy eventually strikes, and mother, father, and baby are soon forced to move on. The woman and her infant find a spot at a shelter, but the husband must move along. Here she meets a young mother (Katherine Waterston) and the fast friends eventually begin their trek to an island commune. However, this journey and the commune itself are not without dangers––some physical, some mental. Keeping her child safe becomes all that matters.
Belo impresses with her first feature. Beyond the performances are some haunting moments––the rising bathwater before the flood’s unleashed rings ominous––and lovely scenes of the deceptively serene countryside. Most effective is a sequence between Comer and Waterston on a beach as the new friends realize their hopes for the future require separate paths. Alice Birch’s screenplay steers clear of some of the most egregious end-of-the-world clichés while leaning dangerously into others. Overall, it works.
The cast is uniformly strong, including Fry––the best thing, by far, about Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth. His character is a bit of an afterthought here, but that nervous passivity is believable. Waterston is an unexpected, solid choice as the woman’s surprise traveling companion, and Benedict Cumberbatch (also the film’s producer) impresses in a small role.
It is Comer, though, who deserves the most praise. She vividly captures the feeling of being a new parent with an endless energy for protection. Ultimately, The End We Start From is a success because its focus is not on the tropes of post-apocalyptic cinema. Instead it zeroes in on the love between a mother and her child, and that makes all the difference.
The End We Start From premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.