Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
I thought when, many, many years ago, the film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was announced that I, zombie aficionado that I am (a zombnado if you will) would be the target demographic for this adaptation. I had bought the book, twice. I'd enjoyed the book both times I'd read it, but as I looked around the faded auditorium at the Cineworld Haymarket, I realised I may be in the wrong room. I was about twenty years older than the rest of the audience and decidedly not a teen aged girl squealing in delight for Douglas Booth and his Q&A. To be honest, I was there for Lilly James. She didn't show. But as the lights went down and the film came up, I really wanted to like this film. I really did. I still do, deep in my jaded heart. But, despite moments, it doesn't really work.
Zombies, in and among themselves, are a silly concept. A reanimated corpse unceasingly moving forward with a desire to devour. The Godfather of the genre, George A Romero has used the zombie to shine a light on modern America, looking at race, commercialism, class and globalisation. His slow, shambling dead were scary but offered more than scares. There is surprising depth to the "Of The Dead" series of films. The trick to a good Zombie story is buy into the premise totally. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg did in Shaun of the Dead with excellent results. Tommy Wirkola did the same with his Nazi Zombies in Dead Snow and, to a degree, so did Seth Grahame-Smith when we added zombies to Pride and Prejudice. Grahame-Smith had the sense to keep the plot and style of Austen's master-work, while adding the undead and a wide range of combat skills to the Bennet sisters. Yet, writer-Director Burr Steers seems to pull his punches when adapting the very silly, yet highly enjoyable book for the screen, despite having an excellent cast to help out.
The plot is essentially the same as good old P&P, with the added issue of the undead to hamper life in England. Fighting skills now go hand in hand with etiquette and where you train is the mark of status of your class. Japan for those at the top, China for those not quite there. Mr Bennet has sent his girls to China, not due to lack of funds, but he figures that the Shaolin style offers his girls their best change of survival. The Bennet sisters are high accomplished in all the arts, deadly and domestic. While the book sticks rather closely to the plot of the original Pride and Prejudice, the film feels need to branch into serious basil exposition. Col. Darcy (Sam Riley) is basically our witchfinder general of the dead and the film opens with a fun set piece over cards where he hunts down a Zombie posing as gentry. You see, in the film's world, you do not become a full Zombie until you partake of human brains. After this we are introduced to Lizze (the luminous Lilly James) and her sisters, of whom only Bella Heathcote's Jane is given any decent screen time. We see them train, get excited about Mr Bingley's (the aforementioned Douglas Booth) arrival and kill the odd zombie while out for walks. The film posits that the dead are slowly winning the war and London, now entrenched and fortified, is now in serious peril by the encroaching hordes. This is where the buy in to the concept should bite, but is sadly toothless. Throw in turns by Charles Dance and Sally Phillips as Mr and Mrs Bennet, Lena Headey as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, "The Deadliest Lady in England" and Matt Smith having far too much fun as Parson Collins, and you have the group. Under served are the villains, both the zombies, who occasionally have fun moments in setting traps and moaning, and Jack Huston's Wickham. The villains are not very villainy. The only scares are jump scares when a musket goes off and Houston is too reigned in to be allowed to be a good villain. Given the licence that Matt Smith takes, Huston could have done so much more, the very fine actor that he is.
Lilly James and Sam Riley are a rather good Lizzy and Darcy, but they are not allowed to go all in. In this they are not helped at all by cinematographer Remi Adefarasin. Given that this is the chap who shot the brilliant Day of Days episode of Band of Brothers, his camera is so close to the action, and oddly low, that we don't really see James, Heathcote and sisters really cut lose as the Kickass Bennet Sisters we really want to see. The action scenes are mostly a blur and we are left with our heroes stomping about in the gory aftermath. At what should be a brisk 108 minutes, you do have to take some liberty with the source material, but the plot bumbles along in a way that the action sections don't really give the thrill they should have and you are left with the best bits being the straight Austen scenes. Because of this, Lilly James suffers the most, not being allowed, it feels, to truly meld Austen's Lizzy with her all kicking modern counterpart. She does give it a very good go, as you would expect from, in my opinion, one of the best young actresses working at the moment, but her performance is too schizophrenic to run smoothly through the film, an issue down more to script and direction than Miss James herself.
On the whole, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is not the popcorn fuelled fun it has every right to be. Even now, I want to like it. The cast is superb, if poorly used. The premise has endless opportunities for fun, which must have been eaten in the edit. I hate that I didn't enjoy this film but the fact is, it just isn't worth the effort to crack its skull, the brain wouldn't cover a water biscuit.