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Director: Burr Steers
Writers: Burr Steers (screenplay), Jane Austen (Quirk Books novel)
Stars: Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Lena Headley
Time was, ‘Just add zombies’ seemed to be the thinking for how to improve any media property. And for a long time, that is what happened. Zombie popularity has made sure the undead are a part of many new film, literary, and TV productions. Naturally, the classics would fall prey, and so we have this, a playful adaptation of Jane Austen‘s famous novel. Truthfully, the title eerily lends itself to the added word and admittedly is clever, but Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, sadly is not.
If it’s possible you are not familiar with Pride and Prejudice, or have just forgotten the book report you wrote about it in school, the story focuses on one Elisabeth Bennet, the second oldest of the five sisters, a fiercely independent girl who isn’t quite so attracted to the machinations of courting as her sisters. New in town come Mr. Bingley, a wealthy young bachelor and his dour and condescending friend Mr. Darcy, who Elisabeth quarrels with often until time and love change them both.
The film is mostly the same, literally taking the story and a lot of the dialog, and adding zombies. The opening narration, accompanying the credits and a colorful pop-up book like sequence explains the situation and history as lightly as possible, preferring instead to let the premise simply be and get on with the story. It’s an interesting combination, mixing the rich narrative of the acclaimed novel with the decidedly simpler themes of the zombie genre. For fans of either, there is an adjustment.
Written and directed by Burr Steers, based on the best selling book of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith (and Jane Austen), the clever concept has a lush period setting and the script is well-written, borrowing much from the source material. It could very well be a worthy adaptation of the Austen novel but the addition of the zombies presents a strange conundrum. While the Austen side of the tale is fun, the zombie story can’t find the right tone. The undead are all appropriately undead-ish, stumbling about as they should, though the gore is greatly reduced as the rating is aimed for teenagers. But as the dialog is as dense and often as poetically delivered as the novel, that same audience may not have the interest. There is also far more Pride and Prejudice than Zombies, who come and go at random for the first two thirds of the film and feel more than secondary to the famous love story.
What holds the most interest by far the excellent cast, led by the highly appealing Lily James, recently charming audiences in Kenneth Branagh‘s Cinderella. James holds her own as the famous Lizzie, giving the celebrated character the depth and conviction that makes her so renowned. Her being battle ready and a highly trained zombie killer is just icing. In fact, all the sisters are great warriors, it being a requirement in the times they are living (Training is one more rung on the social ladder as the wealthy are sent to Japan while all others go to China). Her nemesis is Mr. Darcy, (Sam Riley) an expert and well-known zombie killer who has become adept at finding the undead who have recently turned, hiding among the living (it involves flies). Riley is ruggedly good and has great chemistry with James. One of the funnier moments is a play on the now famous confrontation between Elizabeth and Darcy when he proposes and she refuses, here, the same 19th century prose delivered while the two literally fight each other in well-choreographed hand-to-hand combat. The sheer madness of it is enough to make it entertaining as the same dramatic and emotionally-charged words give the scene the weight it deserves while the free-for-all battle makes it one to remember.
In the cast are some names fans of Game of Thrones will know well. Charles Dance plays Mr. Bennet in a blink or you’ll miss it role, while Lena Headley is Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a famed zombie killer with extraordinary skills (and an eye patch) who has a bit more meaty part but is underused and could be the star of a sequel. Her story is surely a good one. Steers has some tricks up his sleeves but uses them too often, such as keeping zombies out of focus until they attack, and bits of slow motion that don’t add much. There is some humor in seeing the girls, their bosoms heaving in their period dresses, arranged in the sitting room cleaning guns, but Steers sticks mostly to what has worked before. If you’ve seen one zombie attack, you’ve seen them all.
The real issue, as is common in horror, though I use the term out of necessity not as description, is its lack of creativity. While there is a sort of twist in the zombie side of the story, it’s not altogether original. It is not even truly explored, as the film makes use of the undead mostly as fodder. With the title being the most clever part of the project, the length feels stretched. While there are some fun moments, it grows tiresome by the time we reach the predictable ending. Overall, the concentration is more on the Pride and Prejudice side of things and as such loses its bite as the zombies are, much like they are in the title, an unnecessary add on.