Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
2016, PG-13, 107 min. Directed by Burr Steers. Starring Lily James, Sam Riley, Lena Headey, Matt Smith, Jack Huston, Charles Dance, Douglas Booth, Bella Heathcote, Suki Waterhouse.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Feb. 5, 2016
If you wanted to get snobbish about it – and why not; both Pride and Prejudice and this action remix are well-concerned with classist attitudes – you might wonder if there could possibly be any crossover between the fan base of Jane Austen and that of zombie entertainments. But I at least count myself in the comfortable middle of that particular Venn diagram, and you should also count the many readers that put Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 mash-up on The New York Times Best Seller list for a year. It’s called having your whist party and enjoying it with brains, too.
So how enjoyable is this sorta-spoof, arriving in theatres six years after P and P and Z’s print heyday, and after Quirk Books oversaturated the market with the same one-note joke of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Android Karenina, and William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, among others? Well, dear reader, it’s no great shakes, but it’s a lot more fun than you’d expect.
That’s because the filmmakers have sincerely tried to thread the needle between a light horror and a period comedy, delivering zombie fans a passable action film with a unique milieu and Austen fans a funhouse-mirror version of an old favorite – and without giving them the oogly-booglys. In the film’s opening minutes, writer/director Burr Steers artfully conveys a zombie beheading by taking the zombie’s perspective, with the fatal chop tilting the camera to a right angle, and later he will dispatch another zombie’s head in a shotgun blast that is comically jolting, but entirely gore-free. Steers is a clever choice for the material. A member of the same Auchincloss family tree whose branches include Jackie O and Gore Vidal, his dynamite first feature Igby Goes Down chewed on society’s stale upper crust, and some of that class consideration comes into play here, in the interplay between high-born Darcy (Riley), the respectable but relatively poor Elizabeth Bennet (James), social climber Wickham (Huston), and an emerging zombie aristocracy that means to distinguish itself from the brainless hordes threatening Regency-era England.
In this iteration, the Bennet girls are Shaolin-trained warriors, schooled young to battle the zombie menace. But, as the film puts it, “zombies or no zombies, all women must think of marriage,” and so the story follows the familiar paces of Austen’s 1813 novel, complicated – if not exactly enlivened – by so many undead. There’s a subversive kick in seeing Lizzie unsheathe a weapon from her underskirts and claim the agency denied her in the original book, and its era, and Matt Smith – as that simpering stick-in-the-mud, Mr. Collins – is a comic delight, even if other characterizations (including, crucially, Riley’s growling Darcy) are more limply presented.
Still: It is a truth universally acknowledged, at least among Janeites, that we’ll spend long hours scouring every streaming service out there, hungering for a corseted drama to watch. In that respect at least, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is fresh meat, if a tough cut.