'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies'
Essentially, ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ is one long feature-length joke summed up fairly well by its title. However, something about the way the filmmakers and actors so steadfastly and seriously commit to that joke is goddamn delightful.
Adapting from Seth Grahame-Smith’s bizarre and almost inexplicably successful parody novel, writer/director Burr Steers (‘Igby Goes Down’) sticks closely to the text and, for the most part, doesn’t bother to mess with what worked. There’s something oddly compelling and brilliant about shoving zombies (as well as a light sprinkling of kung-fu mythology) into Jane Austen’s literary comedy of manners. If anything, the joke is even funnier blown up to mid-level Hollywood scale. A lot of time and money was dedicated to one dumb joke for smart folks, an act which in and of itself is pretty funny.
The plot is pretty gosh darn close to Austen’s beloved book. Lily James stars as Elizabeth, one of the central Bennet sisters, the beautiful and intelligent daughters of an aristocratic English family. Their mother (Sally Phillips) hopes to marry all the girls off. The most likely suitor is the wealthy Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), who takes an immediate shine to Jane (Bella Heathcote). His best friend is the dark and awkward Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), who would be another appropriate suitor were it not for his darkness and awkwardness. Darcy and Elizabeth are immediately drawn to each other, but in a somewhat caustic and head-butting way that suits romantic comedies rather well. When things look dire on the wedding front, Momma Bennet brings in Parson Collins (Matt Smith), a goofy dingbat with money who takes a shine to Elizabeth even though she has no interest, hoping that she’ll be able to wed for money rather than love. Oh, the goofy love triangles…
Of course, then there’s the tricky addition of zombies having taken over this era in England. Shambling hordes of the undead are a reality of Austenian life in this tale, so all the Bennet sisters were trained in Shaolin martial arts to make them sweet zombie killing machines that would be perfect wifely matches for any English gentlemen. Elizabeth is particularly gifted in the ways of zombie killing, a skill that zombie hunter Mr. Darcy shares, hence their instant silent connection. Naturally, that also draws Elizabeth to the army-uniformed George Wickham (Jack Huston). Thus, the old ‘Pride and Prejudice’ romantic triangles and class concerns are all intertwined with the act of zombie killing. It’s actually amazing how well the story suits the undead. The combination theoretically shouldn’t work but somehow it does.
Burr Steers assumed writing and directing duties on the project after a variety of high profile helmers (including David O. Russell) abandoned it. Steers’ wisest approach to his cinematic adaptation was to never really push the comedy. The premise is ridiculous enough. There was no need to add a bunch of slapstick and mugging. Instead, the cast commit to the sort of verbose and refined acting one might expect from a more traditional Austen adaptation, retaining that stone-faced dedication all the way through their choreographed zombie slaughter sequences. The only exception is Matt Smith, who’s allowed to go goofy due to his utter delightfulness.
Performances are strong, if often deliberately cold. Lily James is particularly impressive as Elizabeth. She slips from drawing room to fight room with amusing grace. Douglas Booth is cold even by Darcy standards and it kind of works. ‘Game of Thrones’ vets Charles Dance and Lena Headey delight in the deadpan absurdism in small roles. Everyone fits together rather nicely. The only real missed opportunity casting-wise is that Eva Green wasn’t slipped in somewhere; she’d be perfectly suited for the refined wacko nature of the production.
While Steers balances the tone well for most of the film, things go slightly off the rails in the third act. A somewhat ill-conceived and convoluted subplot about a rising zombie aristocracy drags things down in the name of amping up the action. It’s rather unnecessary and highlights Steers’ weakness as an action director. The film works best when the action and horror elements are executed almost off-handedly, slipping in around the edges of the social comedy and romance that drive the narrative. Still, even if the tricky balancing act of the film falters towards the end a little, the rest works well enough to hold it together, and the commitment to following Austen’s narrative across the finish line sets things right by the finale.
‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ is an incredibly strange concoction. Some might feel that it’s too stretched-out or that the cinematic adaptation takes the joke of the book too far. It would be hard to argue with that. The film picks such an oddball tone and sticks to it so thoroughly that within five minutes you’ll know whether it works for you or not. The deadpan joke isn’t going to change, and that’s either this weird little movie’s greatest strength or deepest weakness depending on the viewer. For me, it feels like one of those rare self-consciously constructed cult movies that actually has the chance of earning the cult audience it craves. It’s unlikely to be a big hit, but the best genre movie experiments rarely are.