“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES” (Movie Review)Movies/TV,News,Reviews Michael Gingold
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES illustrates the perils of pursuing fidelity—both for its characters and its creators.
I’ll confess that I haven’t read the book, co-credited to Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, the latter of whom took advantage of the original novel’s public-domain status to insert undead action into its text. But it doesn’t take familiarity with either tome, or with any of the past screen versions of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE minus zombies, to recognize that the new film could and should have done more to integrate the flesheaters into Austen’s polite society. If the title were beholden to Writers Guild regulations, it would be PRIDE & PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, so separate does one element seem from the other for much of the running time.
Another issue, despite a number of momentary pleasures, is that of the tone adopted by writer/director Burr Steers. On the page, the cheekiness of adding ambulatory corpses to Austen’s narrative no doubt spoke for itself, and Steers apparently felt the same would happen here, and plays everything completely straight. But having everyone on screen take the zombies, and the need to fight them, for granted drains the tension, both real and comedic, from the movie. It might have worked better to have the Bennet family and their various friends and suitors encounter the undead for the first time in this retelling, but that would have required another major revision of the text, perhaps too much for the producers to dare.
So all the romantic trials and travails play out against the backdrop of a zombie plague in full swing, with a huge wall having been erected around London and estates like the Bennet home serving as oases of pastoral peace, where matters of the heart, not brains and guts, can come to the fore. Of the five Bennet daughters, their father (a welcome if underused Charles Dance) seeks to marry off the two eldest, Elizabeth (Lily James) and Jane (Bella Heathcote, from the Grahame-Smith-scripted DARK SHADOWS), to wealthy men who can provide the financial stability the family no longer can. While Jane initially sparks to neighbor Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), his friend Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) rubs Liz the wrong way. As anyone familiar with Austen’s saga knows, the latter couple will eventually spark to each other, though here, of course, the obstacles to the union are visceral as well as emotional.
Throughout the movie’s first hour or so, though, the zombies feel more like window dressing than an integral part of the plot, proving rather easily dispatched, especially as all the Bennet women have been schooled in various forms of combat. (One nice touch: We learn that the very highest classes train in Japan, while everyone else learns to fight in China—the Shaolin Temple, in the sisters’ case.) Die-hard undead fans will also be disappointed by the lack of onscreen grue; there are a couple of sudden, bloodless decapitations and plenty of rotting/bloody visages (via effectively varied prosthetics supervised by Mark Coulier), but much of the mayhem occurs discreetly just offscreen or is cut so quickly that it has little impact. Eventually, in the final act, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES does become a full-blown action/horror film, and Steers more successfully integrates the key moments of Austen’s fiction into the ghoul mayhem than vice versa.
Overall, the movie does better at translating the original author’s intent to the screen than that of the newer one. It’s lavish enough on a craft level, and the actors are all in the right spirit, led by James’ feisty turn as Elizabeth, though Riley more persuasively conveys Mr. Darcy’s glowering side than he does suggesting why Liz might warm to him underneath her surface disapproval. Dance’s GAME OF THRONES co-star Lena Headey makes a strong impression as Lady Catherine, reimagined as an eyepatch-wearing veteran of the zombie wars, and former Doctor Who Matt Smith provides the over-the-top factor, seemingly channeling Bill Nighy as the insufferable Parson Collins.
Woven throughout all their interpersonal drama are genre grace notes that get knowing laughs, and Steers might have done well to amp up the inherent outrageousness of the clash between those tropes and the gentility of the original story. Not that a camp approach was needed, just a sense of the filmmakers taking advantage of the possibilities for fun that are, after all, inherent in the project’s title.