by Philip Price
Say what you will, but I've never read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. That said, I've clearly become familiar with the story over the years and have seen some of the many adaptations namely Joe Wright's 2005 film starring Kiera Knightley. Again, say what you will, but I did read Seth Grahame-Smith's 2010 novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and kind of loved it, but the 2012 movie adaptation was less than satisfying. Given I knew Grahame-Smith's debut novel would also get the movie treatment I decided not to give it a look with the fact I'd never read Austen's original text also weighing on my decision. And so, going into “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” I looked forward to seeing if a film version of one of Grahame-Smith's parody/mashup novels could be turned into an entertaining movie or if it would still be little more than a good idea even without knowing the depth of the original text. Of course, much of Grahame-Smith's novel from which this film is based is apparently text taken directly from the Austen classic only with elements of modern zombie fiction inserted throughout. So, one could say if you know Pride and Prejudice it isn't hard to imagine what “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” might be. That's true. It isn't. Strangely enough though, it isn't the fact the story doesn't have to be outrageously creative in order to weave the zombie narrative through it, but more simply how much the movie embraces that aspect. Director Burr Steers has crafted a film with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, but does so without ever going too far. Sure, the movie is aware of what it is, but it never becomes a parody of itself in that it goes to certain lengths to highlight its unique premise while never giving cause to laugh at it. In short, the film is cool enough to laugh with us at its absurdities and for that it packs a fun enough punch as far as action/adventure movies go. All in all, the film is simply decent. While it exudes style at certain points and embraces itself fully that still doesn't necessarily mean it executes itself well and when it comes to following through on the promise of the premise with such spectacle this film version falls short and unfortunately feels rather fatigued by the time we cross the finish line.
The story, of course, follows the plot of Pride and Prejudice, but places the novel in an alternative universe version of Regency era England where zombies roam the countryside. We are first introduced to Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) and her four sisters who live on a countryside estate with their parents (Charles Dance and Sally Phillips) as they are under a strict regimen of martial arts and weapons training. While Mrs. Bennet admits the molding of her daughters into fearsome zombie fighting warriors is necessary she also knows she and her husband will have nothing to leave their children once they die and so it is her ultimate goal to find suitable and preferably wealthy husbands for each of her five girls. It is when the wealthy and single Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) purchases a nearby house that things begin to get interesting as Bingley hosts a ball upon his arrival and Mrs. Bennet, being ever the clever woman that she is spies an opportunity to get at least one, if not a few more of her daughters, in front of the right kinds of people. Dance's Mr. Bennet is not as keen on his daughters seeking the reliance of a man, but understands his wife's position and permits his daughters to go to the dance. Sharing her father’s sense of wit and sarcasm Elizabeth has little desire to be paraded around as if a prize to be won, but upon attending the dance can't deny an immediate sort of attraction to Mr. Bingley's friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley), who just so happens to be even wealthier than Bingley as well as a skilled zombie hunter, if not an arrogant one as well. As things go, this initial attraction is overshadowed by aspects of each the other grows to dislike only driving a wedge between the attraction that sparks between Mr. Bingley and the eldest Bennet daughter, Jane (Bella Heathcote). Through the drama of marriage and women seeking men and men seeking women we get hiccups in the traditional story in the form of zombie attacks and, well, you get the picture.
Truth is. I really wanted to like this movie. I really wanted it to be good and it’s not that it isn't, but it isn't actively innovative either. The idea of the title alone is a great idea, one that could really be taken in uber-creative directions and while there are facets of how well utilized this alternate take can be such as when the ideas of being ladylike are constituted not by how well one can dance, but more on how well one can defend themselves. The conversations around how far is too far when toting around muskets and what crosses the line to unladylike behavior in such regards are great, but such examples are too few and far between for the film to really feel like it takes advantage of such opportunity. It is in these areas where the film starts out strong, but loses interest in its own gimmick halfway through resulting in another human versus zombie showdown that packs almost no emotional wallop and features a caveat in the plot of the zombie population that isn't explored enough to be as pivotal as it ultimately turns out to be. Adapted for the screen by Steers as well, the director would seemingly have a strong connection to the screenplay and all its intricacies that would result in a carefully plotted story with purpose in each scene and a propulsive nature that keeps things moving forward. And yet, despite all of the romantic drama that is set-up in the first half hour or so it feels as if it operates in one too many fits and starts to really get the movie off the ground. Things improve ever so slightly when Matt Smith's Parson Collins, who is a clergyman and heir to Longbourn working for the noble Lady Catherine de Bourgh (played by Lena Heady who in this version is an ass-kicking ninja with an eye-patch) who is also Darcy's aunt. Collins is intent on marrying one of the Bennet girls, but runs into trouble with his first two choices. Smith plays the rather bookish and stilted Collins with a flair of oblivious concern that puts his squirrelly mannerisms in the moment, but never for too long. He is the comic relief of the piece and he steals every scene in which he participates.
This relief due to Smith's performance works well though as he appears in the series of events just prior to Jack Huston's George Wickham appearing. In the original text Wickham is a militia officer who has a checkered (to say the least) past with Mr. Darcy despite having been close with Darcy's father. In this version these details are the same, but it is in twisting the narrative to fit the zombie apocalypse that things become muddled or at least not fleshed (hah) out enough for the film to cover as many bases as the novel. What also doesn't help is Steers inability to film the action scenes with much clarity. The film is so darkly lit in many of these scenes that it is hard to tell who is fighting who or even what is going on much of the time. It's odd because outside of the moments that involve swordplay the film can be quite striking in its beauty and color palette. Of course, there is a ton of color correction going on here to give the film that blue chrome hue that seems to be something of a trend at the moment, but nonetheless it has visual flair in large portions while looking like Steers had no idea what he was doing when staging the combat scenes. Fortunately, much is forgiven due to his charismatic cast. As she proved in last year’s “Cinderella,” Lily James is simply a pleasure to watch on screen. She is so unbelievably charming and accessible that you are immediately drawn to her Elizabeth and feel like you and her would get along immediately even if you have no frame of reference to her character from Austen's novel. As Mr. Darcy, Riley is perfectly fine if not somewhat too subtle in his performance as the conflicted, yet truly agreeable bachelor. One can hear the cadence in his vocal performance that displays a kind of pain in seeing his world torn to shreds around him with the idea he might have to kill a close friend or loved one at any moment weighing on his shoulders. While we feel some strange type of sympathy for him, we don't necessarily see what Elizabeth is supposed to see in him. It's clear to see what Riley was going for and he hits something specific and honestly kind of special on the head, but it doesn't totally work here. Maybe even because it's too good for the type of movie it is in. Like “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” I can't help but feel the novel was a complex and intricate weaving of new and old to a degree the movie simply can't capture, but if you're simply looking for some good ole cheap thrills and trashy fun one could do much worse than “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” Especially in February.