Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a classic story in possession of fans must be in want of retelling. Likewise, that if that story is a novel, it should also thence be made into a film. And if you can find a way to put zombies in, wins all around.
Thus, writer/director Burr Steers’ new Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, based on the eponymous 2005 novel “co-written” by Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter) and Jane Austen. Cleverly packaged to release in time for Valentine’s Day, the film is a sure winner for date night: costumes; romance; actors in various states of fetching undress; violence; girls with swords; shambling, oozing undead in fetching period costumes; and powerful women with estates and eyepatches. And Matt Smith. Need I say more, really?
As a version of Pride and Prejudice, PPZ is probably below average, and relies on the viewer’s familiarity with the story, since much of the film’s 108-minute runtime must be given over to worldbuilding and action sequences (although fans of the 1995 A&E adaptation will be rewarded with plenty of homages, especially with respect to Mr. Darcy). Prideful Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James, Cinderella) and disdainful Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) have even less onscreen chemistry than Austen’s off-again, off-again lovers normally display–but they more than make up for it with their zombie-fighting prowess. Lizzie’s intolerable-yet-lovable family is neither interesting enough nor loathsome enough to inspire much response from the viewer; thank goodness for the zombies to give us something to care about.
As a zombie film, it’s probably also less than what the average zombie flick fan is looking for. There are the requisite scenes of shambling hordes, rotting flesh, and brain-eating, but it’s somewhat tame thanks to the PG-13 rating, and in comparison to so many other recent zombie properties. In fact, it’s actually a credit to the filmmakers that they didn’t try to outdo the competition with their zombie horde, and instead showed a certain 19th century refinement and restraint in the presentation.
…And that is where Pride and Prejudice and Zombies hits its mark. It strikes a lively balance between both sides of its nature, and the result is pure enjoyment. Jane Austen’s witty dialogue becomes hilarious against a backdrop of slashing swords, decapitations, and falling bodies. Accomplished, heaving-bosomed Regency heroines are even more appealing when they wield knife and pistol as skillfully as they play the pianoforte. And never has Lizzie Bennett’s rejection of Fitzwilliam Darcy’s marriage proposal been quite so… emphatic (or well-choreographed). Every woman who ever wished Lizzie would just smack the man will want to stand up and cheer. Watch for a glorious setpiece at Netherfields’ ball early in Act I.
A surprising standout is Lieutenant Wickham (Jack Huston). Always the villain of the story, here Wickham is given a much larger role in propelling the plot. He’s a sympathetic, ambitious idea man, and Lizzie’s attraction to him is totally believable. What’s necessarily foreshortened, of course, is his seduction and elopement with younger sister Lydia–but no worries; Steers has that figured out, too. It’s a satisfying twist on the turning point in Lizzie’s and Darcy’s relationship that makes total sense in the film.
Supporting cast members turn in enjoyable performances, as well. I would happily put Lena Headey’s Lady Catherine de Burgh up against Judi Dench’s imperious 1995 version (she’s every bit the legendary Angel of Verdun of Edge of Tomorrow); Matt Smith steals every scene he’s in as the upwardly mobile Parson Collins; and Charles Dance (For Your Eyes Only, Gosford Park, Fingersmith, Bleak House, Game of Thrones) is spot-on as Liz’s father. Fans of Mr. Selfridge, watch carefully for a brief appearance by Aisling Loftus.
For every couple who’s ever wished that The Walking Dead could be more like Masterpiece Theatre (and vice versa), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the movie for both of you.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is in theaters now.