This is one of the year’s best movies.
Like the novel “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” the movie “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is predicated on a simple, single gimmick: It’s “Pride and Prejudice” … with zombies. This is a vaguely amusing idea which somehow got stretched out to an entire book, which somehow became a best seller, which inevitably means it had to be made into a film.
It is essentially Jane Austen’s classic tale of social mores and machinations in 19th century England, down to characters, settings, plot points and specific bits of dialogue, only with the pesky inclusion of the undead popping up here and there to complicate matters further (authorship for the project goes cheekily to both Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith.) While the 2009 book played this genre mash-up for dry, sly laughs, writer-director Burr Steers’ film amps up the thrills and gore. And that’s a problem—not necessarily as a narrative choice, but from a technical perspective.
What differentiates “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” from its literary source material is its big action sequences, but they’re staged, lit, shot and edited in such muddled fashion, it’s often difficult to tell what’s going on. There’s no visual context to the assaults and no way to determine their source or size, which depletes these scenes of their tension, making it impossible to become engaged. Sometimes this is intentional, as in Steers’ frequent use of blurriness right at the point of when a zombie is about to devour someone, but it doesn’t work in those instances, either. Too often, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is so darkened as to be inscrutable, as in a basement scene when the Bennet sisters are bantering while sparring in preparation for the next possible attack—the women have to worry about both marrying the right man and not being eaten.
In case it’s been a while since you read the book in high school English class: “Pride and Prejudice” centers on headstrong Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James), the second-oldest of five daughters of average means who’s not nearly so obsessed with marrying up as her mother (Sally Phillips) is. While her beautiful older sister, Jane (Bella Heathcote), becomes romantically involved with the handsome and obscenely wealthy Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), Lizzie enters into a love-hate relationship with Bingley’s close friend, the even more obscenely wealthy Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley). Social classes clash and sparks fly. Misunderstandings arise but eventually clear up, characters are forced to admit to both their pride and their prejudice, and everyone lives happily ever after.
In the zombified version, though, the Bennet girls have all been trained as warriors, and the social-strata element comes into play in regards to the location where that training takes place (Japan for the elite, China for everyone else). George Wickham (Jack Huston) isn’t just predatory and untrustworthy, he also might not be entirely alive. And the haughty Lady Catherine de Bourgh (a fierce, sleek Lena Headey) is the most celebrated zombie-killer of them all—with an eye patch to prove it.
Sometimes, this mixture works—mainly in the quieter, calmer moments, as when the characters sit around a drawing room cleaning their guns or one-upping each other while comparing their expertise in the deadly arts. And as the sisters dress in their finest gowns and style their hair for a ball, they also carefully slide daggers into their garters for protection. The small, deadpan moments in Steers’ script have more of an impact than the massive, noisy set pieces.
Through it all, though, James is a delight to watch as Lizzie. If you saw her last year in Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella,” you know how hugely appealing she can be. Here, she’s playing a very different kind of iconic figure, but in both cases there’s something pure about her screen presence that makes her seem accessible and true. And she has decent chemistry with Riley as the arrogant, abrasive Darcy—but then again, several of their key exchanges take place within the context of some sort of physical fight, either with each other or against the stumbling, mumbling undead, which detracts from their inherent romantic tension rather than enhancing it.
It’s a tricky thing to pull off, this delicate balance of tone. Very few directors could do it successfully, but it seems Steers—whose eclectic filmography ranges from “Igby Goes Down” to “17 Again” to “Charlie St. Cloud”—wasn’t quite ready to expand his repertoire this far. Maybe someone else can crack the code to the ultimate Austen mash-up when the inevitable “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” adaption comes along.
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