Pride & Prejudice & Zombies
Directed by: Burr Steers.
Written by: Burr Steers based on the books by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith.
Starring: Lily James (Elizabeth Bennet), Sam Riley (Colonel Fitzwilliam Darcy), Bella Heathcote (Jane Bennet), Ellie Bamber (Lydia Bennet), Millie Brady (Mary Bennet), Suki Waterhouse (Kitty Bennet), Douglas Booth (Mr. Bingley), Sally Phillips (Mrs. Bennet), Charles Dance (Mr. Bennet), Jack Huston (Lt. George Wickham), Lena Headey (Lady Catherine de Bourgh), Matt Smith (Parson Collins), Emma Greenwell (Caroline Bingley).
I think it’s fair to say that Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice – probably her most loved novel – doesn’t need zombies for the story to work. The novel, and several filmed versions of it, work just about perfectly – the characters are witty and clever, there’s drama and heartbreak and comedy and romance, and anything else a reasonable reader/viewer could want. Yet, I also have to admit that having seen several different versions of Pride and Prejudice on screen – including several “updates” (like Bridget Jones or Bride & Prejudice), zombies are pretty much the only thing that hasn’t been added to previous screen versions before, so what the hell, why not? There’s not much point in a straight adaptation any more – completists love the BBC Miniseries with Colin Firth, and those who want something more compact could not want a better version than Joe Wright’s 2005 version with Keira Knightley’s best performance to date. Telling the same damn story again, with no zombies, would serve little purpose. So even if Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sounds like something a room full of advertisers would come up with – you know, give the women all that romance crap, and all the men zombie action, and everyone will want to see it – I was at least hoping that the movie would be a fun distraction. And that, it almost is.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is how much writer/director Burr Steers really does try his best to get Austen’s original novel on the screen – just with some zombies. I can easily imagine the talented Lily James as Austen’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet in a more traditional telling of the novel – she is feisty and funny and headstrong, and plays the role pretty much straight – which works here. Sam Riley’s Darcy is a stick in the mud for the most part – but then Darcy normally is, until the end, and even if Riley is never quite able to elevate his game – to make his Darcy more than a dullard, he gets most of the performance just right. Bella Heathcote is quietly quite good as Jane Bennet – pining after Bingley, but this time not quite needing him. Best of all may be Matt Smith as Parson Collins – an idiot to be sure, but such a lively one, that even as he says some horribly offensive things, he does such with such vigor, you like him anyway. The costumes are fine, the period details works, etc. Yes, as I said before, another version of Pride & Prejudice is probably not needed – and even if the scenes where they play it straight do not rise to the level of the best versions of the story, they work well enough that the film is a pleasant way to pass the time.
The real problem is that the zombie stuff never quite fits in with the rest of the movie. I understand that the humor of the movie is to introduce the living dead into the prim and proper world of England society – where everyone is so polite that a woman like Elizabeth speaking her mind is considered gossip worthy, so how the world reacts to something like zombies should be good for some laughs. I also get how the Bennet sisters were proto-feminists, so having them be zombie ass-kickers actually makes quite a bit of sense for them. And yet, the presence of zombies is basically a one joke concept – one that is never really explained either – and after the initial shock of seeing the sisters kick ass, there isn’t much room for the movie to go in this direction. It doesn’t much help that the action sequences are not really well staged.
As a writer/director, Steers never quite gets the tone of the movie right – he may well have been able to make a version of Pride & Prejudice – and perhaps, he could have made a decent zombie movie – but he doesn’t blend the two together very well. It’s always one or the other – and when he tries to do both at once, the movie is at its weakest.
Pride & Prejudice & Zombies never really works as well as it should. It has a goofy premise, and really, should have whole heartedly embraced the goofiness that’s inherent in it. That’s not to say the movie is horrible – anything that has this much of Austen’s original, and a very good cast in it, cannot be entirely bad. But it’s not good enough either. Perhaps it’s time to just stop adapting Pride & Prejudice at all. There are although Austen novels after all.