Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Has Narrow Appeal
1 1/2 out of 5 stars.
Despite the long title and claim that this movie is a horror-comedy-romance mash-up, I can’t imagine who Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is meant for. There’s logic to making this movie (and writing the book) because it combines two extremely popular things in pop-culture: Jane Austen and Zombies. But this doesn’t feel like much of a Reese’s chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter situation. They don’t work together to create something new; instead, it’s flashes of two somewhat interesting elements at war with each other in a swamp of bad material. Watching, it almost feel like the filmmaker was yelling “this isn’t your mom’s Jane Austen!” without realizing there’s a lot going for Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice (and zombies) that we still like.
This isn’t a case of blasphemous storytelling. At this point, the characters and story of Pride and Prejudice are so classic that remakes, retellings, and parodies can’t tarnish it. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett are two of the greatest characters in literary history and have become their very own archetypes in literature to come. I would probably call Pride and Prejudice one of my two favorite novels (it’s my annual beach read), and I also love the miniseries. I’m a little divided on all the movie versions, but none have me burning copies). However, something that’s so important to acknowledge about Jane Austen, and Pride and Prejudice specifically, is the fact that it isn’t just one of the best romances of all time; it’s also a great comedy. The book and Austen’s writing are truly funny and seem to get funnier when you consider what has (and hasn’t) changed since it was first written.
From what I remember of the book version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the humor of Austen’s original text was captured far better than it is in this screen adaption, which makes me assume that even if Burr Steers (who wrote and directed the film) knows Austen’s original works, he isn’t a fan. The movie has gone through a bunch of screenwriters and directors, but I wasn’t someone who dismissed Steers as a bad choice. For one, he tends to like modern satires about class and got his start acting under the direction of Tarantino and Whit Stillman, so he has the right pedigree for this material. However, the satire of Austen and society and courtship are so undeveloped that the movie seems like nothing but wasted opportunities from start to finish. Even Austen loyalists can see the ridiculousness of the situations (a situation Austen didn’t even seem in total agreement with) and most know there’s plenty to poke fun at, but P&P&Z seems to not only be mocking the beloved characters but also those who have affection (even critical affection) for them. The Bennett girls are frequently fetishized as girls with guns and knives, fighting in slow-motion and posing with weapons, and the sisterly dynamics and tensions are simply absent.
I would argue that Lydia, one of my favorite characters, is treated the worst here, but all the girls’ personalities have been muted and sacrificed for the action. Only Matt Smith really seems well-versed in his character (Mr. Collins) and leans into the comedy of both the new and old text, but nothing can excuse the performances of Lily James and Sam Riley as Lizzy and Darcy. Their snarky approaches to the characters feel completely wrong and not only betray two of the most beloved characters, but make them hard to tolerate simply as the heroes in the film; plus, they have no chemistry. Douglas Booth is solid as perpetual puppy-dog Mr. Bingley, and Jack Houston is clearly game as Wickham (although I ultimately thought he and Riley should have just switched roles), but not seeing Lena Headey’s Lady Catherine actually fighting seems like a missed opportunity that’s simply baffling. I just sat there waiting for her to pick up a sword.
The oddest thing about P&P&Z, however, might be the visual approach to the material. Austen’s material always has a summery, pastoral quality, even when the narrative has tragic elements. Considering the best Austen films, there’s a vibrancy to the sad Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion that just works with her language, and there are moments when the film plays into that, but those moments are brief before clouds roll by and things look more like the Bronte sisters’ world than Austen’s. Why not tell a zombie story that comes to its climax in the daylight with flowers and sunshine? That would have at least been visually interesting for a zombie movie.
And in terms of zombies, I still don’t understand the logic here. Apparently, these zombies have to be activated by being fed human flesh. Got it—kind of a clever idea—but two huge questions of logic remain: “How did they figure that out?” Who fed the first zombie human flesh and realized that wasn’t a good idea? And, “Why not keep them sedated, even if you’re going to kill them anyway?” It has to be easier, and while we’re at it, Darcy has always been portrayed awkward around people due to his shyness and pressures of obligation, but he certainly isn’t stupid, which he often is in this film—especially towards the end, when it becomes a dreary, unpleasant mess of a zombie action film that’s hard to even follow.
I just can’t imagine who Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is for. Austen fans may find it condescending, especially how little Steers seems to appreciate the text he borrows so heavily from. Zombie fans, on the other hand, have to wait a long time for any serious zombie stuff, and even then, there isn’t the social commentary of classic zombies or memorable visual sequences. The movie looks fine as historical drama, but no better than any BBC production of Jane Austen, except when the screen has a faded hue that reads as cheap CGI and reminds me too much of Sucker Punch. It’s rarely actually funny, except when making direct references to Austen’s work (again, the script is way too faithful to the original text), and makes you think, “I wish they had written some jokes for this movie.” And that horrific lack of chemistry doesn’t even make it a strong enough date movie.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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