Studio: Screen Gems
Director: Burr Steers
Writer: Burr Steers, Seth Grahame-Smith, Jane Austen
Producer: Sean McKittrick, Allison Shearmur, Natalie Portman, Annette Savitch, Brian Oliver, Tyler Thompson, Marc Butan
Stars: Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Lena Headey
Sisters in 19-century England see their fledgling romances tested by class struggles against the backdrop of an ongoing war with the undead.
Chalk it up to my reading of 19th-century female authors being limited to Mary Shelley and the Bronte sisters, but I’ve not read Jane Austen’s celebrated classic “Pride and Prejudice.” Nor have I read Seth Grahame-Smith’s merger of Austen’s novel with undead antics that kickstarted a brief horror/history hybrid craze in 2009. I don’t know if that first sentence makes me uncultured in the eyes of some, though I do know the second puts me in position to come at the film adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” without affinity for or familiarity with either slice of source material.
Which could be a very good thing. Of the negative criticism regarding “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” a fair deal of it stems from distaste for repurposing deified public domain text as pop culture parody. Austen purists see a sanctified book being disrespected. Horror fans wonder why a period costume romance is cluttering up the carnage. It’s poetic that “Pride and Prejudice” with and without zombies concerns people whose presuppositions lead them to misperceptions. Because open minds without a dog in the debate can find a movie that works well as genre-blending entertainment once prejudicial expectations are hanged at the door upon entrance.
Up until its third act, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” follows Jane Austen’s outline virtually beat for beat. Occasionally, something originally authored as an ordinary illness is swapped for an undead outbreak or a zombie encounter is briefly inserted before the story carries forward as usual.
The Bennets are an English family anxious to wed five daughters to elite upper class bachelors. Misters Darcy and Bingley fit that bill and end up with eyes for sisters Lizzie and Jane, respectively. Unfortunately, a sizable class divide stands in the way of marriage, as do assorted other suitors including a clergyman cousin and a soldier with shady ties to Darcy’s family. As if the ladies didn’t already have their hands full taking up swords against articulate aristocrat zombies littering the surrounding countryside.
Mashup might not be the best descriptor for “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” since it implies at least two elements blending together. In truth, “PPZ” bats its focus from one distinct side to another at a very leisurely pace.
If a zombie is not onscreen, then the horror side of the story is decidedly not in play. Anyone antsy for undead action may wonder exactly what type of movie is on hand when scenes run long on gowned society types conversing in cavernous banquet halls or while wandering manicured estate grounds. With an emphasis firmly on the first two words of its title, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is a dramatic period romance with a slight tongue in its cheek before it can be considered anything else. Whether this fact dismays or delights, the last word of the title is only an accent.
What is refreshingly unique about this is how purposefully zombies are not made the center of the story. Be it movies, video games, or comic books, in major zombie franchises such as “The Walking Dead” or Romero’s “Living Dead” universe, simply surviving is always the primary focus. Here, an ongoing war against the undead is only required as a backdrop for a different purpose. It’s tremendous to see a zombie apocalypse for once depicted as something almost ancillary rather than every character or plot point’s sole reason for existence.
As Lizzie, Lily James is wonderful to watch, carrying a Keira Knightley quality about her. Only after writing that note did I discover Knightley actually played the same character in 2005’s “Pride and Prejudice” proper. The two films might make for interesting companion viewing based on actress similarities alone. This is likely at least partially intentional since James and Knightley also resemble Natalie Portman, a “PPZ” producer who was once attached to star in the Lizzie role.
Matt Smith steals scenes at will as Parson Collins, mugging in a manner suggesting he is having more fun than anyone else. At the same time, Smith being calibrated as more comical than his often grimacing co-stars highlights the film’s greatest flaw: inconsistent directing flattening an otherwise fun atmosphere.
Burr Steers’ direction is reserved, limited as if by a subdued supply of visible enthusiasm, when the very concept of combining a literary masterpiece with flesh-eating creatures screams for unbridled rampage. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” should be embracing inherent insanity at all times instead of keeping its heart rate consistently calm. Possibilities for more electrified personality exist in setting and setup, but Steers is content to let action and actors go their own ways, hoping they’ll end up unified by happenstance even when there are frequently different destinations in mind.
“PPZ” is a 2016 film, yet it still uses map animations as a time passage transition. It may be a period piece, but it isn’t a retro presentation. Outdated and arguably lazy storytelling techniques only add more tasteless water to the flavor.
“PPZ” employs a number of other elements it also doesn’t need. Among other characters, the story features at least one sister too many (I had to look up Mary’s name after the fact as I’m uncertain if it is even spoken in the film). It’s a relief that the script doesn’t shoehorn every ounce of Austen or Grahame-Smith’s material into the movie, though it is concurrently curious that it chooses to keep so much unessential fluff.
Credit for most of what the movie does right, which is more than it does wrong, is due unsurprisingly to the strength of Jane Austen’s story. The core plot of “Pride and Prejudice,” again with or without zombies, is a highly engaging comic melodrama given life in this instance by a charismatic cast and incredible scenery.
I went in prepped for a cheeky “Masterpiece Theater”-style sendup with a hearty helping of flesh-eating monsters, which is not at all the film’s first foot forward. I ended up unexpectedly invested in the outcomes of multiple 19th-century romantic entanglements, which I assert is uncharacteristic of my usual entertainment interests. Even more unpredictably, I came out with an overwhelming interest in further exploring Jane Austen’s writing, which I believe has to count as some sort of accomplishment for “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
NOTE: There is a mid-credits scene.
Review Score: 70