Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)

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three star

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The convenience of films with titles like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that you pretty much know ahead of time whether or not you’ll be on board with what they’re selling. Do you enjoy costume dramas? Are you not yet completely exhausted by the staggering amount of zombie media out there? Surely there are enough people who sit comfortably in both categories. Just take a random polling of attendees and any Tori Amos or Rasputina concert & you’re bound to find a few.  And you can count me among them. I can enjoy a good, middling costume drama any day of the week & I’m more or less in the same camp when it comes to mediocre zombie mayhem (although that genre tests my patience more every coming year). I never bothered reading the print version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which the film’s opening credits claims is a “Quirk Book series classic”) because it seemed kind of mindless & arbitrary, but luckily mindless & arbitrary are two attributes of genre cinema I can usually get behind. Basically what I’m saying is I knew approximately how I was going to feel about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies before I even got to the theater and I suspect most people are in the same boat. The film itself did little to exceed or subvert expectation, but honestly I was fine with that.

As you might expect with a literary adaptation where zombies are air-dropped into a classical work, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies somehow keeps its Jane Austen plot & its zombie mayhem somewhat separate. Early scenes show young maidens cleaning guns instead of sewing (or something similarly ladylike) & including knives in their garters & corsets dress-up montages, but for the most part its polite society parlor drama & the zombie killing rampages mix about as well as oil & water. The film has fun with genre-bending lines like “Zombies or no zombies, all women must think of marriage, Lizzie” & “I don’t know which I admire more: your strength as a warrior or your resolve as a woman,” but its two plot lines rarely bleed together in a satisfying way. On one hand you have a small gang of unmarried sisters trying to land wealthy beaus while staying true to themselves. Happening almost entirely somewhere else: the zombie apocalypse & an alternate history of England as a country. The film’s line of horror comedy is mostly an occasional interjection that disrupts these dueling plot lines. For a film with such a winking joke of a premise Pride and Prejudice and Zombies takes both ends of its titular mashup surprisingly seriously.

There is exactly one thing that stuck surprisingly  astute with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as a Jane Austen adaptation. One thing the film does very well is to bring attention to the way Austen’s characters are viciously combative in their hushed, “polite” conversation. During scenes that might’ve played as subtle verbal sparring on the page are accompanied here by not-subtle-at-all literal sparring. For each verbal jab someone throws at their societal opponent a corresponding jab is thrown with a fist. A perpetually slumming-it Charles Dance (who now has a history of working in this realm thanks to Victor Frankenstein & Dracula Untold) plays the girls’ paterfamilias & describes his progeny as “our warrior daughters”. It’s true that the girls were already warriors in the zombieless Jane Austen source material, but their modes of violence & agency were a little less easily detectable. God help any desperate high school student who tries to pass an exam on Pride and Prejudice by watching this film, but the thematically obtuse might get a better understanding of the novel’s modes of societal combat by watching it play out visually on the screen.

That small insight aside, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is mostly a silly endeavor, never entirely serious about engaging with its source material in any sincere way. It’s also not all that committed to the zombie end of its premise. The monster make-up is solidly on point, but the film shies away from the gore end of the genre that made folks like George Romero & Peter Jackson masters of the form. Hardcore Pride and Prejudice fans and hardcore zombie movie fans are both likely to find plenty to gripe about here, since the film splits its time between both halves without  ever fully committing to either. The ideal audience, then? I’d say folks easily impressed by costume dramas who wouldn’t mind a little zombie mayhem peppering the genre for superfluous flavor are most likely to enjoy themselves. Pride and Prejudice fans are likely to be annoyed by how the novel’s feminist themes are cheapened by being boiled down to sexy women playing with weapons in complicated underwear. Zombie creature feature nerds are likely to be bummed by how the genre’s go-for-broke gore has been mostly supplanted by bodice-heaving romance. Personally, I took perverse pleasure in both of those aspects (especially the part about the complicated underwear; can’t help myself). For me, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ worst crimes are being a little overlong & having the gall to flash back to earlier scenes from within its own film in an especially-lazy letter-reading scene. For a film that sets the bar so low & expectations so specific in its very title & premise, those are two faults I’m more than willing to forgive.

Side note: I love how insular casting in the costume drama/fantasy cinema world can be. Besides Game of Thrones‘ Charles Dance & Lena Headey, there’s Lily James of Downton Abbey & Cinderella, Maleficent‘s Sam Riley, Noah‘s Douglas Booth, and (my personal favorite) Boardwalk Empire‘s Jack Huston. I guess you could include Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith in there as well, given that series’ time-jumping aspects. I’m sure for the actors this kind of typecasting can be an annoyance, but as an audience I find it oddly fascinating.

-Brandon Ledet

Suffragette (2015)

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three star

Suffragette is a costume drama set in an early 20th Century London in which working class women frustrated with the women’s suffrage movement’s lack of progress gained through years of peaceful protest decide to stake their claim through civil disobedience. You can pretty much guess how the film goes from there, as there are very few stylistic embellishments provided to distinguish the film from the majority of its genre. Much of Suffragette is a dutiful catalog of the daily injustices a typical working-class woman might’ve suffered a century ago, including domestic abuse, the tyranny of the second shift, lack of rights in terms of child custody or property ownership, rampant sexual assault from male authority figures, more work for less pay, and a brutal class system that essentially amounted to lifelong indentured servitude for the less-than-fortunate. In response to these oppressive forces, lofty proclomations are announced for the audience’s benefits, phrases like “All my life I’ve been respectful, done what men told me. I know better now,” “If you want me to respect the law, then make the law respectable,” and “You’re a mother, Maude. You’re a wife. My wife. That’s what you’re meant to be.” “I’m not just that anymore.” The rest of the dialogue is mostly comprised of the film’s “suffragettes” greeting each other by name at various political rallies in long strings of “Edith.” “Maude.” “Violet.” Etc. There’s some genuine tension achieved through the gradual escalation of violence in the women’s various protests, but for the most part Suffragette‘s significance as entertainment depends heavily on how you feel about straightforward costume dramas as a genre. As for me, I thought it was pretty alright.

Perhaps the only real surprise Suffragette brings to the table is the way it also plays like a wartime drama. Filmed in drab earth tones & grimly scored, the film literally pits men & women together as opposite sides in a hard-fought war. Police stations function as war rooms, women train themselves (often through montage) to look tough by not crying & to fight hand-to-hand, violence escalates from smashed window displays of shops to homemade bombs, men detect & dissect weaknesses in their ranks, and so on. Suffragette seems very much aware of its war movie tendencies & draws a distinctly linear, A-B progression from how the idea that “It’s deeds, not words that will get us the vote” leads directly to the assertion that “We burn things because war is the only language men understand.” It’s, of course, a well-justified shift in protest tactics, since the men in charge were highly unlikely to budge from their stance that “Women are well represented by their fathers, brothers, and husbands” without intense physical provocation. As far as war films go, Suffragette is light on both violence & battlefield strategic planning, but that genre context is still undeniable.

If Suffragette suffers one particular Achilles heel that hinders it from exceeding its genre limitations, it’s in the film’s pacing. As a mildly-fictionalized historical overview of a specific moment of tribulation in London’s past, the film feels the need to hit a wide range of plot points like it’s dutifully fulfilling a checklist. The always-welcome Carey Mulligan is perfectly engaging as the protagonist Maude, but the way the movie moves through her various victories & degradations rarely leaves enough room for her moments of crisis to properly land will full impact. Just like how Maude is sort of swept up by the suffragette movement around her without ever intending to become an activist, her run-ins with threatened imprisonment, police brutality, troubled relationships with family & employers, and subsequent public shaming all feel like natural, easy-to-come-by progressions instead of the moments of utter devastation that they could have been if they had allowed to properly breathe. In a lot of ways the sole moment the film allows the proper reverence for is an overblown Meryl Streep cameo in which the universally-loved actress is treated like royalty as she briskly passes through the film (even though she”s prominently featured on the poster). Not helping at all is a steady-as-she-goes score from Grand Buddapest Hotel‘s Alexandre Desplat. The score sounds fine, but it rarely escalates to match the action, so that the whole runtime just sort of runs together with very little tonal distinction.

I almost hate to say it, since it plays into the current cultural tidal shift in media preference, but Suffragette might have been better served as a television show or a one-off mini-series than as a feature film. The movie covered a little too much ground to establish any significantly intimate moments with its characters and as a result I really felt the back & forth war of the sexes would’ve played much better over the course of 20 hours instead of 2. As is, it’s a serviceable genre film that melds the finer aspects of the costume drama & the war film into a just-alright compromise of the two aesthetics. It’s pretty much destined to be mid-afternoon easy-viewing for a certain kind of target audience. And there are certainly much worse fates than that.

-Brandon ledet

Mr. Holmes (2015)

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threehalfstar

Director Bill Condon’s name isn’t one you’re likely to hear often. He’s not a particularly flashy director; his films have a sort of low-key level-headedness to them that feel entirely different from the likes of visually overreaching auteurs like a David Lynch or a Wes Anderson. Very early in his career, however, he did helm two fantastic costume dramas that both packed a surprising punch considering their calmly handsome exteriors: Kinsey and Gods & Monsters. Due mostly to their superbly talented casts, a generally pleasing visual palette, and an unusually frank take on the grey areas of human sexuality, both Kinsey and God’s & Monsters are real emotional powerhouses that subvert the low-key vibes they boast on the surface. Condon has an elegant, adult touch to his costume dramas & biopics that make them alarmingly rewatchable & lingeringly poignant in a way you wouldn’t expect considering the basic confines of their structure.

After a brief foray into the business of Twilight sequels (a venture I can only hope paid nicely), Condon is seemingly getting back to what he does best. His latest film, Mr. Holmes, brings in Ian McKellen & Laura Linney, who were both fantastic in their respective roles in God’s & Monsters and Kinsey, for yet another low-key costume drama that initially seems suspiciously run-of-the-mill, but actually packs an emotional wallop. In Mr. Holmes‘ portrayal of what is probably the world’s most famous detective (and easily the world’s most famous Sherlock) struggling to reconcile his unusually sharp observational skills with the encroaching doom of senility, Condon has found a way to add another unexpected layer of depth to a character that has become perhaps overly-familiar at this point in pop culture. Just like how the costume dramas & biopics of Condon’s past have complicated & subverted their audience’s genre expectations, Mr. Holmes plays with what you would expect out of a Sherlock Holmes movie by slowly removing the elegance & mental facilities you would expect from Holmes himself.

Of course, this is just as much Ian McKellen’s triumph as it is Condon’s. The idea of McKellen playing an aging Sherlock Holmes will obviously be a major selling point for a lot of people tuning in to this humble indie drama & Mr. Holmes does not disappoint on that end. In three separate, but narratively interwoven storylines McKellen plays the infamous gumshoe at varying times of his waning life. In some scenes he’s as keen as ever & in others he struggles to walk the short distance across his study. Unlike with traditional Sherlock narratives, the point of Mr. Holmes is not to solve the mystery of a specific crime, but for the detective to solve both the mystery of human nature & the more haunting mysteries that the daily battles with a fading mind present. As Holmes slips into senility he begins to regret his life-long dedication to facts & logic and forces himself to learn how to connect with people on a more empathetic & emotional level before he loses the ability to connect at all. McKellen can be absolutely heart-breaking in these dual struggles, his piercing blue eyes calling for help from behind an eerily aging face.

This doesn’t mean that the movie can’t be fun as well. When Holmes is having one of his “good days”, McKellen shines as a comic talent. He’s got a bitchy, effete, intellectual air to him that can make you snort with laughter with the mere roll of an eye or an off-hand joke about death. This is especially true in scenes where Holmes is interacting directly with his own celebrity, scoffing at the novelized & feature film versions of his life and poking fun at the costume he’s typically depicted wearing. It’s McKellen’s tender, but catty approach to comedy that lures you into a comfortable lull that suddenly hits you right in the heart once all three of the film’s storylines culminate in a tidy, but satisfying conclusion. Condon & McKellen (along with a top-notch performance from an always-welcome Linney) have together crafted a rare thing: the well-behaved, but emotionally potent indie costume drama with only rare visual showiness (mostly in the occasional period-specific artifact: a worn book or photograph, bee-keeping gear, an ancient glass harmonica, etc.). Mr. Holmes might not be the best or most ambitious work of either Condon or McKellen’s careers, but it is a special treat watch something so simple shine so brightly– even if it is, in Sherlock’s case at least, the last time around.

-Brandon Ledet