Directed by Burr Steers
Written by Burr Steers from the novel by Jane Austin and Seth Grahame-Smith
Starring Lilly James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcoat, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Lena Headly and Sally Phillips
Runtime 108 minutes
Though genre mash-ups have become very popular of late, especially with easily accessible editing programs and YouTube, they’ve been around for as long as movie ideas were old enough to get a little tired. Most of the time, the mash-ups were limited to inserting a lot of comedy into a normally dramatic situation (gangster comedies, western comedies, horror comedies) but never has there been a romantic drama/horror mash-up like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, based on the 2009 novel of the same name. For the book, Seth Grahame-Smith took Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice and reworked it with fight scenes and the zombie apocalypse and it worked very well on the page and felt like it could make a really entertaining movie, which it has (though, as fun as it is, this will hopefully not end up with a film version of the less-successful attempt to recreate this formula, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, which really exists. Grahame-Smith’s follow-up, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter has already been filmed and is not nearly as good as his book or this movie).
The release of this film also marks the second Natalie Portman produced film with major production problems to hit theaters in as many weeks (the first was Jane Got a Gun). Back in 2009, when the film was announced, Portman was to play Elizabeth Bennett (now played by Lilly James) but she was forced to drop out due to scheduling conflicts, though she stayed on to produce. The film went through several directors and drafts until it was finally completed and released. The difference here is that this film is actually entertaining and well put together.
The story is the familiar story of Pride and Prejudice with Elizabeth Bennett hating then falling in love with Mr. Darcy and all of the 19th century English high society wrangling, but now there is a battle for all of humanity against the zombie horde, created by a virus brought to England through trade. All of society was trained in Japan, except the Bennetts who were sent to learn kung-fu in China. This causes some derision until they’re seen in action at a ball that becomes infested with zombies.
There is a larger scope involved too, with London becoming overrun and the possibility of peaceful coexistence with zombies that haven’t made the full transition (as they have not consumed human flesh) all worked into and around the classic love story.
Writer/director Burr Steers (who wrote and directed the closest thing to a Catcher in the Rye film in Igby Goes Down) utilizes the clever book as a firm basis for the film. He does allow the zombie plot to overtake the classic romance toward the end, but the core of Austin’s story remains intact. He also manages a real quality through real sets and a lot of practical effects augmented by CGI to make it easier to connect to the proceedings. His script honors both parts of the story and keeps the relative seamless merger of plots and does a good job in keeping the dialogue sounding period-authentic, even when discussing the zombie hordes. He also keeps Austin’s original wit and humor throughout, making this less a drama and more a comedy of manners (as it is supposed to be) with epic zombie battles woven in to create tension.
His directorial approach was a little more heavy-handed than his script, though. He inserted needless flashes and camera tricks that detract from the period detail, making some of his action shots look like they belonged in a Zach Snyder film more than this one. During the zombie-free moments, he directs the film appropriately, as though you were watching Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice from 2005 and that only helps to make the zombie sequences fit within this world. His visual aesthetic is vivid and alive and his pacing never wavers, despite some lulls in the story.
The cast also seems to be enjoying themselves quite a bit. Charles Dance (Tywin Lanister from Game of Thrones) and Sally Phillips delight in their roles as Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, hewing them closely to the original concepts of the characters and adding some legitimacy to the zombie plot. James is a stand-out, as she has been in recent years on Downton Abbey and the Kenneth Branagh-directed Cinderella from 2015. She fills the role of zombie-slaying Elizabeth Bennett very well, displaying some formidable skill and planting the seed that she could become an action star as much as she will be a dramatic one. Riley comes off as a bit stiff and stilted, but that’s really more of a pitfall of the character than his talent, as everyone who has ever played Darcy has come off the same way since the first adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1938. Matt Smith, best known as The 11th Doctor from Doctor Who, gives a delightfully silly read on Parson Collins, the Bennett cousin that stands to inherit their estate as the law requires it go to a male heir and he is the closest male relation. Another standout in a small role is Lena Hedley (Cerci Lanister, also from Game of Thrones) as the Lady Catherine de Bourge, the deadliest woman in England and the noblewoman of the county (and Darcy’s aunt). She plays the role ruthlessly, much like her Game of Thrones role, but with as much as a wink and a nod as the rest of the cast.
With all the pomp and circumstance that often accompanies an adaptation of classic literature, this film keeps its head and never takes itself too seriously. It knows that the premise is off-beat and revels in how atypical it is while never making a mockery of it either. Steers stays committed to the idea and follows it through to the end. It never aspires to be a great film, simply an entertaining one with something for everyone and on that point, it succeeds. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies may not be remembered as a great literary adaptation, or even particularly remembered at all, but it is a fun and unique picture.