***One of my frequent complaints is that I don’t do movies that are easy to find. I’d point out that most of those movies were requested by other people, so I know how difficult they are to find, but whatever, I’m going to try and do more movies and shows that are easily accessible, mostly Netflix. So, this film’s on Netflix right now. Enjoy.***
If you can’t tell from the title, this movie is British. Like, super British. Like, The IT Crowd meets Downton Abbey level British, which also describes the cast’s previous roles. Most of it takes place in 1946 in Britain and on the Island of Guernsey, something I feel that you might not know exists unless you watched a lot of BBC. However, it’s an amazing period piece full of great performances.
Juliet Ashton (Lily “I’m Cinderella” James) is an author who is looking to write stories about the benefits of literature following the end of WWII. She is contacted by a man named Dawsey Adams (Michiel “I’m Daario Naharis” Huisman), who found a copy of a book by Charles Lamb (this is a real person and, if you knew that, have a treat) that previously belonged to her. They start talking through letters and she finds out that, during the Nazi occupation of the Island of Guernsey, locals formed a club called the “Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” which served as their excuse to avoid the Nazi-imposed curfew. The Potato Peel Pie part is from one of the members making a pie out of potato peel since the citizens had nothing else to eat. Juliet heads to Guernsey to meet the members and discovers a number of surprising secrets about all of their lives and the lives of the people on the island recovering from the occupation.
The movie’s based on a novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows that I read on a flight about 9 years ago. I don’t have it that fresh in my memory, but the plot points do seem to mostly match-up. The book is mostly an epistolary novel, though, so you get a lot out of the movie because of the difference in how the characters are approached. In the book, everything has to be filtered through the perspective of the author of the letter, but in the film, as you’d expect, most of the action in flashbacks is just presented to you. It makes it feel a little bit more like a detective story, rather than a series of recaps of deductions and findings that were already made.
Every performance is pretty much spectacular, partially because the cast is phenomenal. James is likeable and upbeat and inquisitive without ever coming off as overbearing. The members of the Literary Society all have their own motivations and secrets which are conveyed well. Special mention has to go to Jessica Brown Findlay as Elizabeth McKenna, whose capture by the Nazis prompts much of the mystery. She’s not in it too much, but she manages to get across all that you will need from the character. Tom Courtenay, Katherine “I’m Jen from the IT Crowd” Parkinson, and Penelope “I’m Shaun’s mom in Shaun of the Dead” Wilton all shine in their parts as the other members of the Literary Society who used it as a way to cope with the reality of living under Nazi rule.
Without spoiling much, there’s a romantic subplot that is actually paced well, something that doesn’t happen much in any movie where it isn’t the focus. Hell, that’s impressive in films where it IS the focus.
The drawback is that the film is about 2 hours long, which is about 20 minutes and 2 subplots longer than you needed, but it’s a period piece, so you should expect that and compensate by having wine nearby along with fancy foods from exotic places, like Dates or Brie or Whataburger. It’s not a wholly original film, but it’s still got enough emotional hooks and great moments that it’s worth watching. Let me put it this way, if you like Downton Abbey, you will love this film. Personally, I’m glad I saw it.
So, it’s happening. I’m doing all of Edgar Wright’s movies, though I guess not in any particular order. There aren’t that many, since Fistful of Fingers never got distributed and he got kicked off of Ant-Man, and I probably won’t review Spaced unless it’s requested. I do like the show, though not as much as the subsequent films, I just am already regretting the shows I’m currently set to review… especially since I plan on doing an actual live review of the next season of Doctor Who. But, for now, I’ve got some more amazing movies by a visionary director to review.
This was the first of the Cornetto Trilogy and also the least-earning one at $30 Million, though on a $6 Million budget, it still was profitable… though it earned less money that year than Christmas with the Kranks, Fat Albert, or Catwoman, a fact that should kill your soul.
Slight format change: I’m putting a synopsis here, and a full summary after the “read more” page, so you can just read the analysis and not have to wade through the movie. If you want the summary, just go to the bottom and read it first. Let me know if you think this is better.
Shaun Riley (Simon Pegg) gets dumped by his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), because he’s so dispassionate about life that he only wants to drink at the same pub, the Winchester, with his slovenly roommate, Ed (Nick Frost). Shaun decides he’s going to get his life together, but unfortunately he’s been missing the fact that the zombie apocalypse has come. Shaun and Ed form a plan to get his mom, Barbara (Penelope Wilton), kill his step-dad Philip (Bill Nighy) who has been bitten, rescue Liz, and head to the Winchester.
However, things don’t go as planned. Shaun can’t bring himself to kill Philip, Liz brings along her flatmates David and Dianne (Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis), Ed screws up most of the plans by being reckless and irresponsible, Barbara is bitten, and Philip becomes a zombie. They finally make it to the pub, but are surrounded by hordes of zombies. Eventually, David, Dianne, and Barbara are killed, Ed is bitten, and Shaun and Liz prepare to go out fighting, but are rescued by the military. Six months later, Shaun and Liz are engaged and Shaun keeps zombie Ed in the shed to hang out with, their relationship mostly unchanged.
Something painfully occurred to me during this re-watch: In terms of re-watchability, this is the worst of the Cornetto Trilogy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still fun to watch again, but Edgar Wright’s films are notoriously good to watch a second, third, or tenth time. Hell, the other two movies in the trilogy, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, are arguably BETTER when you see them a second time. This one is about the same. Still good, but about the same.
Part of that is that this movie has less of the foreshadowing and repetition that are in the other two films, because this was the first one. Sure, they’re in the film and they’re done great, but they just aren’t as polished as they are in the others. But, none of that makes this film any less amazing, because when you consider that this is an underfunded first outing of a director who had previously only done television, this is basically watching Babe Ruth’s first home run.
Like the best zombie movies, the point of the movie is to use zombies as a metaphor. In Night of the Living Dead it’s Vietnam-era America (and a dash of racism from the living), in Dawn of the Dead it’s consumerism, in Day of the Dead it’s a lack of communication, in Land of the Dead it’s the nature of power to eventually be countered, and in Dead Alive it’s so that someone can kick ass for the Lord (if you don’t get this reference, ask me to review the movie). Shaun of the Dead actually takes it a step further and just points out that so many people are effectively already zombies that the actual zombification is really secondary. Hell, at the end, Noel (Rafe “I was the bad guy in Jurassic World 2” Spall), the jerk that worked with Shaun, is basically doing the same job now that he’s a zombie.
Shaun feels the way that many people feel. He’s given up doing anything he’s passionate about (like his deejaying) because he has bills to pay. He instead chooses to just do the same thing over and over again, drinking with Ed and Liz at the same bar, never trying to be stimulated, because when you know your dreams are dead, what the hell’s the point in doing anything else? And, like many of us, he’s just existing, he’s not really living. He’s not depressed or suicidal, he’s just dispassionate and doesn’t know what to do since he can’t do the thing that he actually wanted. It’s like most people whose passions are art or theater but aren’t lucky enough to do them for a living, you end up just working a job to keep a roof over your head, and you don’t want to dedicate all the energy for a hobby. You know that you could, but you also know it’d be super hard for little reward, so you don’t, and then you’re even more miserable by choice.
To summarize: You’re not living, but you’re not dead.
I’m going to add a clip from the show Steven Universe here, because there is a song that perfectly encapsulates what I’m saying.
The key to the movie is stated by Liz at the end: ” You did something. That’s what counts.” When Shaun actually starts to do something instead of just going through the motions, everything goes wrong, which is exactly the thing that most people fear so much that it stops them from doing anything. But, that’s also exactly what allows Shaun to start being a more complete person at the end of the movie. He hasn’t stopped hanging out with Ed, hasn’t stopped going to the Winchester, but he’s also doing other things that have some risk and discomfort. And that’s how you really feel alive.
As for the technical qualities of the movie itself, the foreshadowing and repeated dialogue is amazing, partially because it almost all functions as clever wordplay and partially because recontextualizing things is an easy way to convey meaning by inherently drawing comparisons. The big one is Ed’s speech about what they’ll do the next day:
“… Have a Bloody Mary first thing. Get a bite at The King’s Head. Grab a couple at The Little Princess, stagger back here and bang! We’re up at the bar for shots. How’s that for a slice of fried gold?”
Aside from Ed’s speech telling the plot of the movie (Bloody Mary is the first zombie they kill, a bite at the King’s head is Philip getting bitten, grab a couple at the little princess is picking up David, Dianne, and Liz, back to the Winchester for shots is… self-explanatory), there’s also Ed telling his other roommate Pete (Peter “I’m the Tick” Serafun… Seramichelle… Serafinowicz) that the next time he sees him he’s dead and Pete telling Ed to live in the shed.
The repetition is pretty great, too. Shaun’s dialogue to Ed when he’s playing the game is mirrored with Ed saying the same to Shaun when he’s shooting zombies. There’s a shot in the beginning of the film when Shaun closes his bathroom mirror and Pete is there as a jump-scare parody, which later is duplicated with the zombie Pete. “You’ve got red on you” naturally takes on two meanings. Shaun’s walk to the bodega near his house is similar both times, except the second time the apocalypse has happened. When Shaun tells David to turn the jukebox off, he says “kill the Queen,” (because the song is by Queen) which becomes a conflict when David tries to kill Barbara, who, as the King’s wife, would be the Queen. Additionally, almost every character seen in the first half becomes a zombie in the second.
Another hallmark of the film is that there are sharp, dramatic cuts with powerful sound effects for the most mundane things, like adjusting a tie or washing hands. Like with the repeated dialogue, this actually helps to convey the metaphor by saying that the scenes that normally would feature the zombies feature the mundane aspects of Shaun’s life.
There are tons of references to other zombie and horror movies, with businesses being named for George Romero, Lucio Fulci, John Landis, and their films. Much like in the original Night of the Living Dead, the zombies are never actually explained, although the proposed causes are borrowed from other zombie movies.
Other than that, the movie’s just funny as hell. Every performance is pretty much spot on, although I have a special love for Penelope Wilton as Barbara. She was always so gentle and loving that it was honestly heartbreaking to watch Shaun kill her.
Also, last thing, I finally looked up what Noel’s dialogue means when he says he only has an “Henry.” That’s Cockney rhyming slang for pot, because it’s Henry the Eighth -> An Eighth of Pot. Cockney rhyming slang is always fun.