Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Sony Pictures
Director: Burr Steers
Screenplay: Burr Steers, based on the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen
Starring: Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Matt Smith, Douglas Booth, Suki Waterhouse, Ellie Bamber, Charles Dance and Lena Headey
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 47 minutes
February 5, 2016
(out of four)
The whole purpose, it seems to me, of making a movie (or writing a book) called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is to embrace the absurd anachronism of that very specific combination. And so this adaptation was always going to come down to its particular sense of humor - not just its style, but whether it even had one to begin with. The previous ironically juxtaposed Seth Grahame-Smith adaptation did not. 2012's Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter was an amusingly ridiculous concept on its face, and it resulted in a mostly humorless, tediously grim big-screen affair from Timur Bekmambetov.
But while I'm happy to report that this movie does, at least, have a lightly comic attitude, I can't say it does much beyond the bare minimum. If this type of mashup is a trend of any sort, this is progress, but only the incremental sort. What Pride and Prejudice and Zombies gains in levity, it still lacks in imagination. Director Burr Steers, who also adapted the novel for the screen, never really figures out how to bounce the Regency-era sensibilities off the distinctly modern, Walking Dead-adjacent zombie drama, so the central juxtaposition - the entire selling point - doesn't land.
The film gets its sense of humor almost entirely from Austen, with its dry comedy of manners proceeding in most scenes as if there's been no zombie apocalypse at all. And that's kind of the sticking point. Not only is there very little (if any) humor culled from the presence of the undead, but Steers seems perpetually uncertain how to fit them into the equation at all. The strategy, then, is to mostly ignore them (aside from the passing reference to "plague"), and to let the already-familiar drama - Elizabeth Bennet/Mr. Darcy, Jane Bennet/Mr. Bingley, George Wickham/Mr. Darcy, and of course everything involving Mr. Collins - play out the way it normally would. The only consistent reminder that things are different than in any other Pride and Prejudice adaptation is the depiction of the Bennet sisters - and most other women in the area - as battle-tested soldiers who undertook years of fighting and martial-arts training in the Far East. There's a famous quote about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire could do, but backwards and in high heels; the same logic would presumably apply here - Elizabeth and her cohorts are every bit the soldiers their male contemporaries are, only they have do it in gowns, petticoats and corsets.
Austen herself would have found a way to put those ironies into action here - were she ever inclined to write about zombies, that is - but instead the blend of contrasting elements here is ineffectual. The zombies might, in different hands, be a clever contradiction to the period-piece formality. But in this movie, they might as well be any other invading force. That one character begins arguing for appeasement is a mildly cute exploitation of that fact, but mildly cute details only go so far.
There are other witty touches here and there - a pre-battle montage that shows the Bennet sisters sheathing daggers in their garter belts comes to mind (although those shots seem to be playing to sex appeal for male audiences more than anything else) - but the whole concept gets worn out rather quickly. The film rather doesn't know what to do with itself. And so we go through mostly familiar beats, meeting the Bennet sisters Elizabeth (Lily James), Jane (Bella Heathcote), Lydia (Ellie Bamber), Kitty (Suki Waterhouse) and Mary (Millie Brady). We get introductions to Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley, once again investigating vampires, as he did in Neil Jordan's Byzantium) and Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) at the ball, where the former, as always, casually and callously insults the appearance of our heroine (yet another big-screen Elizabeth Bennet that we're all supposed to pretend isn't monumentally attractive). And eventually the appearance of Wickham (Jack Huston) and all the drama his presence brings about.
Once it becomes clear that the movie is pretty much just going through Austen's motions, rather than using its unique conceit to re-frame the story in some way, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies becomes not just a bore but a lost cause. There are plenty of Pride and Prejudice adaptations out there. This is the only one with zombies. The filmmakers would have been well-advised to take that chance and run with it.