PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES
Director: Burr Steers
Cast: Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Sally Phillips, Suki Waterhouse, Ellie Bamber, Millie Brady, Lena Headey
MPAA Rating: (for zombie violence and action, and brief suggestive material)
Running Time: 1:48
Release Date: 2/5/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 4, 2016
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an actress in possession of the opportunity to play Elizabeth Bennet will jump at the chance. One can imagine the phone call Lily James received from her agent, telling her of an offer to play that character. One also imagines the actress cutting off the full extent of the news upon hearing the title Pride and Prejudice, and now imagine the look on James' face upon seeing the full title on the front page of the screenplay: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
I like to imagine that everyone involved in this movie had an experience like that hypothetical one, as if the entire process of people signing on to this thing was just one big misunderstanding—or maybe everyone's representation sort of whispered the zombie part. Of course actors and filmmakers and costumers and set designers would love the chance to adapt Jane Austen's novel, no matter how many times it has been done in the past.
What's strange about the movie is that it appears everyone involved approached the material as if they were making a straight, zombie-free version of the story. What's stranger still is that there's a pretty decent adaptation of that story to be found whenever the undead aren't about.
James, for example, would make for a very fine Elizabeth, and she actually does in the lengthy sections of the movie when director Burr Steers' screenplay (adapted from the niche book that resulted from Seth Grahame-Smith's mucking about with Austen's source material) seems to forget that there are zombies roaming the countryside. She stands up to the seemingly smug and emotionless Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) with genuine wit and moral outrage during the two characters' various tête-à-têtes. Riley, with his dark mood and raspy voice, would likely make for a decent Darcy, too, in a de-zombified adaptation. It's just that, here, the characters' irreconcilable differences eventually result in a battle of fists, kicks, and various objects around a drawing room as they recite Austen's words.
Surely there must have come a point or two or twenty during the process of making this movie that people in the production secretly wondered or publicly questioned why they weren't just making Pride and Prejudice. All of the pieces are here, and they work quite well.
It's not just the performances, which include Matt Smith as an equal parts foppish and pompous Mr. Collins, as well as Charles Dance as a sternly loving Mr. Bennet, Sally Phillips as the singular-minded matchmaker of a mother, and Jack Huston as the deceptively charming Mr. Wickham. It's also obvious in David Warren's production design, which cares about the particulars, and the costumes by Julian Day. Remi Adefarasin's cinematography makes good use of natural lighting to establish the period and to complement the characters' shifting moods.
Then, of course, the zombies arrive. To be fair, the movie doesn't hide its intentions. They're there from the start. The prologue, which climaxes with a subjective shot from the zombie's perspective of Darcy stabbing and decapitating one of the undead, is followed by a pop-up book-styled alternate history of England, explaining how a plague wiped out most of the population and turned them into zombies. A massive wall and an extensive moat were built around London. Families started sending their children to practice martial arts in Japan—for the wealthy—or China—for those of lesser means.
Darcy is a well-renowned zombie hunter, and the Bennet sisters prepare for potential suitors and social functions by tightening their corsets and sheathing daggers into their stockings and boots. Once the important plot points of Austen's story are communicated in a scene, the movie switches into zombie mode, as the sisters and their various suitors must fight the undead. After that, the story returns to the concerns of love and marriage, and then the zombies show up again.
That's the joke, if one can call it that, and it's a pretty big "if." It's not only that the joke is thin, but it's also that the effectiveness of the movie's straight-faced approach to Austen's actual material only highlights how arbitrary and unthinking the inclusion of zombies is.
The undead add nothing to the story. The two primary elements—of Austen's depiction/lambasting of contemporary courtship rituals and of an approaching zombie apocalypse—simply don't mesh. It feels silly that anyone here would put any—let alone so much—effort into such relatively trivial matters when hordes of zombies are threatening to overtake society. As for the zombies' place in this world, there's the potential for some form of social satire, since the undead seem to represent the lower class. Whatever potential there might be, though, is dismissed for the routine of a final battle and chase.
There are two distinct modes here, and each one is a distraction to the other. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn't daring enough to use the gimmick in order comment upon or dissect Austen's novel, and when the movie does stick to the original source, it constantly forces us to wonder why the damned zombies are here in the first place.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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