Flooding is among the extreme weather disasters on offer on a planet with a changing climate, and that’s both catastrophic and, in a literary sense, poetic. The first apocalypse recorded in more than one ancient text is, after all, a deluge.
But there is such a thing as too much symbolism, and “The End We Start From,” adapted from Megan Hunter’s acclaimed best-selling novel, is drowning. The action starts in a bathtub that’s slowly filling for a woman (played by Jodie Comer and identified in the credits only as “Woman”). She is heavily pregnant, and the bath is soothing, a weightless relief for her strained vessel of a body.
As the water fills the bathtub inside, the world is filling up with water outside. Woman and her partner, R (Joel Fry), live in London, which is rapidly coming to resemble Venice without the bridges and islands. Woman goes into labor, and by the time the baby is born, she and R cannot return home. R, looking at the television, jokes about naming the baby Noah. They leave the hospital and head, like everyone else in England, for a village on higher ground. But they’re only permitted to enter because R’s parents live there, and because they have a two-day-old baby in the car.
From here it’s a survival movie, a story in which Woman must protect her child through a series of shelters and journeys and fearsome encounters of a sort familiar in postapocalyptic tales. Separated from R, she yearns for him, wondering if the world will ever have a place for their little family again. She meets a friend, O (Katherine Waterston), whose baby is two months older than Woman’s and whose partner is not worth yearning for. They form a kind of connection through the wilderness, a friendship that might keep them both alive.
“The End We Start From,” adapted by Alice Birch and directed by Mahalia Belo, is not an adventure or action film, though it has both. It’s working in a more poetic mode, with lots of point-of-view shots and murky images of nature and water that sink the viewer into a contemplative mode. It’s as much a movie about the hazy struggles of early motherhood as it is about survival in a destroyed world — and it’s best when it leans into the former, with characters’ discussing why anyone has a baby at all.
Yet as Woman meanders on, her journey turns weirdly dull. There’s very little tension in “The End We Start From,” which one might reasonably argue makes it more authentic. Real life after a disaster consists of trying to stay alive, which includes long stretches of tedium punctuated by moments of terror. But the sketchy quality of this material probably worked better on the page than the screen. The strangers Woman encounters, for instance, feel constructed to be capital-T Types, humans demonstrating a range of human reactions to life after the storm: belligerence, kindness, fear, gallows humor, trying to remember, trying to forget.
This seems very much on purpose, given the main characters’ lack of identifiable names and, for the most part, histories. But it gets exhausting, and despite a typically stellar performance from Comer, the movie never raises serious doubt that Woman will make it through the film. The question, if there is one, is what kind of a world her baby will live in.
That query — whether it’s worth trying to recreate the world that was, or resign oneself to a different kind of existence — seems to power the film. It’s a formidable question to consider. The memory is still fresh of a time, just a few years ago, when we were forced to ask ourselves the same question and live with the uncertainty of an answer.
But “The End We Start From” doesn’t quite seem to know where it lands on that question, while simultaneously not giving us enough to chew on — and that’s a shame, given Belo’s strong visual imagination. Instead, the most poignant moment in the film comes from Woman pleading with her infant. “Sorry, we’ll fix this,” she tells the baby, spinning stories that may or may not be true. “We’ll go home, and you’ll grow tall and strong and kind, and you won’t remember any of this.”
“This isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” she concludes, echoing everyone’s feelings onscreen and off. “I’m sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry. …,” she trails off. There is, sometimes, nothing left to say.
The End We Start From
Rated R for some frightening apocalyptic encounters and some maternal nudity. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes. In theaters.