A lit-horror mash-up that mostly works but slows considerably in its second half.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
There’s something genuinely interesting about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies when it first gets going. As a relative newbie to both Seth Grahame-Smith’s book the film is based on and the Jane Austen book that book is based on (forgive my ignorance, I beg you), the juxtaposition of the white upper crust at the turn of the 19th century with the socio-political, blood-letting genre pleasures of zombie and martial arts movies is a lot of fun. Not blow-your-mind, innovative fun, but straightforward, shoveling-popcorn-in-your-face, night-out-at-the-movies fun. The novelty wears off, though, and what’s left is a decently entertaining but frustratingly anti-climactic pop culture mash-up that doesn’t quite live up to its potential.
Writer-director Burr Steers does indeed have a few good things in place at the film’s outset, most notably a game young cast who generally hold up their end of the bargain. Elizabeth (Lily James), Jane (Bella Heathcote) and the rest of the Bennet sisters grab our attention immediately, gossiping and fantasizing about their respective dream suitors as they tighten each others’ corsets and polish their pointy zombie-slaying weapons. (The movie’s gender-reversal twist is that, in this world, the women generally do the fighting while the men often cower away in a corner. It’s a strong sentiment that loses its power due to Steers trumpeting it too loudly.) The strongest male warrior in the land, the brooding, handsome Mr. Darcy (a pleasantly ashy-voiced Sam Riley), who Elizabeth at first detests. The sexual tension between them is as thick as butter, of course (they’re both stubborn loners), and James and Riley do a fine job building that chemistry. Jane’s matched up with Mr. Bingley (Douglass Booth), but their relationship’s only significant to the plot and nothing more.
Elizabeth and Darcy is where all the real action and drama stems from; their union is inevitable but is stopped dead (cough) by an impending wave of zombie hordes that threatens to wipe out all of London. While the hard-headed Darcy prefers to meet the undead head-on on the battlefield, Elizabeth meets a shady stranger who proposes a treaty with the zombies, facilitated by a process that placates their hunger for human flesh (feed them animal parts and they stop being belligerent assholes for a while). The plot really starts to get in the way of the actors in that they aren’t really given a lot of space to explore the more interesting corners of their respective characters’ personalities before a stupid string of exposition ruins the mood. That being said, James and Riley are a wonderful match and go above and beyond to keep us invested.
What’s worse, with all the anticipation built up of an unstoppable zombie army and the promise of a great war with the undead for the fate of London, we get absolutely nothing of the sort. There are a few displays of zombie slaughtering throughout the movie, but an epic, sprawling, LOTR: The Two Towers melee never comes. A disappointment to say the least.
The movie’s half-comedy, of course, its silly premise a clear giveaway that we shouldn’t take the material so goddamn seriously. Problem is, the movie just isn’t that funny. Again, much of the humor relies on the subversion of gender roles too heavily (is seeing a woman kick ass in a movie really so uncommon that we need to point it out so incessantly?) and the novelty of aristocrats being highly skilled warriors loses its luster before the plot even gets going. The movie’s major highlight is Matt Smith, playing the prissy Parson Collins who, despite his best efforts, can’t convince any of the Bennet sisters to take his hand in marriage. He first has his sights set on the already-spoken-for Jane but then concedes that he’ll settle for any of the sisters, a sentiment that isn’t met favorably by the girls or their parents (Charles Dance and Sally Phillips). Parson’s inability to see himself for the idiot the rest of us see him as is one joke that never gets old, thanks to the refined talents of Mr. Smith.
Steers tries to represent the wit of Austen’s material as best he can, but all the nonsense of the (frankly awful) zombie-slaying half of the story gets in the way at every turn. There’s a balance to be struck between respecting the integrity of Pride and Prejudice while having fun with the wacky experiment of throwing zombies into the mix, and Steers’ attempt is decidedly wobbly. The romance done well, but the decapitation, stabbing and zombie mass-destruction? That bit could have used an extra dash of crazy sauce to even out this unappetizing plate of lit-horror fusion.