MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for zombie violence and action, and brief sexually suggestive material)
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” —Jane Austen (not)
Could a zombie-fan and a Janeite see the same movie and both have a good time? They could. Strange as it may sound, the new film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, based on the book by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, is one of those films which could, at least in theory, please both.
Although I’m not a fan of The Walking Dead or horror films like Night of the Living Dead, ad nauseam, I can appreciate their underlying primal fear. I don’t like gore, however, so I avert my eyes. But the question is, how does P&P&Z stack up as an Austen film, a zombie flick, and a 90-minute escape overall?
The plot goes like this: Somehow, the zombie virus got back to England, circa 1800, from a colony in the Caribbean (take that, British Empire!) and now there’s a whole zone of zombies. The good folk of proper society, as well as the help below stairs, must be vigilant about the undead. Those zombies, it seems, can be bitten and infected, but only develop a taste for human brains once they feed on them. No initial lust for humans, and they abide with the world in an uncomfortable truce; they even look totally normal. But just one taste, and munch! – you get the picture.
The film opens with a satisfactorily bloody fight sequence at a whist party. Col. Darcy (Sam Riley is apparently both Mr. Darcy and his cousin Col. Fitzwilliam, eliding two characters as one) is more than just a rich snob; he’s also a champion zombie hunter. He kicks ass in the opening scene; shortly thereafter, we learn that heroine Elizabeth Bennett (Lily James, of Downton Abbey and Cinderella fame) and her sisters (Bella Heathcoate, Ellie Bamber, Millie Brady and Sukie Waterhouse) have all trained in martial arts in China and we see them practicing their skills. Overlay the fights and dojo practice with Austenian dialogue, and you see the possibilities for satire and humor.
Naturally, Col. Darcy and the luscious Douglas Booth as Mr. Bingley come to the village, where Bingley falls for Jane (Heathcoate) and Darcy snubs Lizzie. “Every savage can dance, even zombies,” he sneers, glibly quoting one of Austen’s most famous lines with its appropriate zombie twist. Every savage indeed. The expected P&P scenes follow, with the ball at Netherfield where Mrs. Bennett talks too much and too loudly, the obsequious cousin Mr. Collins (Matt Smith, also known as Dr. Who for four seasons) preys upon Lizzie as potential mate, and the sexy rake, Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston), catches Lizzie’s eye.
Where the film leaves traditional Austen behind and ventures into the In Between (the zombie danger zone), the story gets thin and the patience of even the most devoted fan wears thinner. One can hold a perfumed hankie to one’s nose when it comes to the Bennett sisters packing heat, or practicing swordplay, or riding (good heavens!) astride instead of sidesaddle. But send Lizzie on a horseback ride with Wickham into danger, and suddenly it’s the smelling salts, a fainting couch and a cool cloth for my forehead. Let’s just call that part London Bridge, acknowledge that it’s falling down, and move on to the romantic interlude, where Darcy and Lizzie spar, literally, over the marriage proposal. That’s funny. And it works on multiple levels.
In other scenes, some characters work and others don’t. One strange choice is Lena Heady as Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Heady’s character from Game of Thrones seems to have dropped in uninvited to Regency England; Lady Catherine should be much more bullying, and less like a sheroic pirate captain. That looks like screenwriters and directors trying to fit the coat to a too-small cloth. The film was directed by Burr Steers, probably best known for his acting role as Roger in Pulp Fiction. Natalie Portman had a role as producer, and optioned the book with an eye toward starring, but that was not to be.
Typical Austen films, such as Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion featuring Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root, or Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park, are heavy on costume, manners and dialogue. While Austen is very funny, if you have some understanding of Regency society and politics, most people are not so well equipped and fear Austen as a bore. God, no. Jane is anything but boring. She’s clever, satiric, and sharp, even macabre on occasion. Alas, that doesn’t shine through on the screen in this attempt, despite liberal swaths of Austen’s own dialogue in the screenplay. Some stories need the inner landscape to tell the full tale.
As a zombie flick, the story holds together, ish, if you kind of gloss over that weak bit in the middle. There’s gore, brains, and a sighting of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, with a fearsome possibility of a sequel, if the after-credits panoramic shot is to be believed. As an Austen movie, the costumes and scenery are there; the manners, which were all that kept worlds from crumbling into chaos back in the day, are not expressly present. Again, a bit of weak sauce in an appropriate dish without even a runcible spoon. And, despite the best intentions of writer Grahame-Smith, who also wrote Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, the best lines are still Austen’s. As a 90-minute escape, it’s good. If you don’t like gore, look at your popcorn when there’s blood flowing. I did.
Editorial Director Julia Park Tracey freely admits she is a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America and has presented scholarly papers to the annual meeting of said Janeites. #pinkiesup