Based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 parody novel of the same name, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” should instead be called “Pride and Prejudice with Some Zombies.”
It is essentially Jane Austen’s classic tale of the social realms of her society at the time down to the characters, setting and famous dialogue, with the addition of the undead, who pop up every now and then to confuse the audience even more.
What separates “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” from its literary counterpart are its big action sequences. But tragically, they’re staged, lit, shot and edited in such a way that it’s difficult to tell what’s going on. There’s no visual context to the assaults, and no way to determine their sources or sizes, which rids these scenes of any potential tension, making it impossible to become engaged.
Sometimes, this is intentional, as in director Burr Steers’ frequent use of blurriness right at the point of when a zombie is about to devour someone, but it doesn’t work in those instances, either.
For the unfortunate few who have yet to read “Pride and Prejudice,” the story centers on headstrong Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James), the second-oldest of five daughters, who’s not nearly so obsessed with marrying “higher” as her mother (Sally Phillips) is. While her beautiful older sister Jane (Bella Heathcote) becomes romantically involved with the handsome and wealthy Mr.
Bingley (Douglas Booth), Lizzie enters into a love-hate relationship with Bingley’s close friend, an even wealthier Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley).
In the zombie-fied version, however, the Bennet girls have all been trained as warriors, and the social division comes into play in regards to the location where that training takes place (Japan for the elite, China for everyone else). And George Wickham (Jack Huston) isn’t just predatory and untrustworthy; he also might not be entirely alive.
And the haughty Lady Catherine de Bourgh (a fierce, sleek Lena Headey) is the most celebrated zombie-killer of them all — with an eye patch to prove it. Sometimes, this mixture works — mainly in the quieter, calmer moments, as when the characters sit around a drawing, room cleaning their guns or trying to one-up each other while comparing their expertise in the deadly arts. And as the sisters dress in their finest gowns and style their hair for a ball, they also carefully slide daggers into their garters for protection. The small, deadpan moments in Steers’ script have more of an impact than the massive, noisy set pieces.
Through it all, though, James is a delight to watch, as is Lizzie. If you saw her last year in Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella,” you know how hugely appealing she can be. Here, she’s playing a very different kind of iconic figure; but in both cases, there’s something pure about her screen presence that makes her seem approachable and real. And she has decent chemistry with Riley as the arrogant Darcy — but then again, several of their key exchanges take place within the context of some sort of physical fight, either against each other or against the stumbling undead, which detracts from their inherent romantic tension rather than enhancing it.
It’s a tricky thing to pull off, this delicate balance of tone. Very few directors could do it successfully, and it seems Steers — whose ecclectic filmography ranges from “Igby Goes Down” to “17 Again” to “Charlie St. Cloud” — wasn’t quite ready to take on a film this eccentric.