This article was originally published to The Edge on 15th February 2016
When the first spoken line of your film is a deadpan bastardisation of Jane Austen’s legendary opener (“it is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains”) the audience has a choice to make. You can turn your nose up at the utter ridiculousness, which at the time is delivered with no tonal awareness. Or you can laugh with the film’s endearingly silly attitude. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is certainly not for everyone.
In 19th century England, London has been overrun by a zombie plague from the new world. The high and middle-classes hide in the country, protected by a capital-encircling great wall and a 30 fathoms deep trench a few miles further out. Elizabeth (Lily James) is one of five sisters (all trained in martial arts to fight the undead), from the middle-class Bennet family in Hertfordshire, surrounded by higher class people. When the charming Captain Bingley (Douglas Booth) moves into the nearby manor, and falls for Elizabeth’s sister Jane (Bella Heathcote), the matriarch Bennet (Sally Phillips) turns up the pressure on all the sisters to find a partner. Elizabeth finds herself drawn to and equally repulsed by the arrogant Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley), a high-ranking figure in the battle against the undead. A man as unflinching in matters of class as combat. Sparks fly between him and the Bennet family, especially as Lieutenant Wickham (Jack Huston), his old rival, arrives in the county. Oh and, did we mention the zombies?
A straight Austen adaptation with this cast – which also includes Charles Dance as Mr. Bennet, Lena Headey as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Matt Smith as Parson Collins – could be completely perfect. A zombie survival film with this cast would certainly be watchable. Combining the two premises could be disastrous, and if it were less committed it certainly would be. But director Burr Steers knows exactly what he wants to make, although his craft doesn’t always match his intentions.
For all intents and purposes this is the classic, unquestionably perfect comedy of manners played out against a rich (but near-unmined) thematic background of zombie apocalypse. Apart from an okay prologue that shows Darcy playing inquisitor at a high-society function with an infected in hiding, all the light horror-action scenes occur within the romance narrative, arriving at low emotional moments. This allows the tonal shift from period rom-com to action to feel more intuitive. Liz is insulted by Darcy and we get angry, but then that anger becomes fear and excitement as zombies arrive suddenly to stir up mayhem.
The script and direction grounds these genre shifts in the characters, and uses them to do some effective world-building. Some original ideas exist in the periphery of the central romance, but certain small details that were clearly meant to link together are missing connective tissue that would make them have greater impact. It’s also lacking genuine scares, and cleaner action photography to match the stylish choreography. The film’s clumsy and very silly, but it’s also endearing and utterly committed.
Where the film really triumphs is in its cast. Booth is the right blend of noble, sweet, and dim as Bingley, making an excellent pair with Heathcote’s charming Jane. Sam Riley too does stoic and intentionally wooden work as Darcy, managing to bring the requisite passion and emotion when its needed. However, it’s Matt Smith who steals every single scene he’s in, as the completely foppish Collins, and Lily James who utterly owns the film. She’s a thoroughly confident, vulnerable, powerful, and intelligent Liz Bennet; she’s also almost too sexy, though the costume department can be put to blame for that. Her’s and Riley’s chemistry is great, and in the film’s best scene, his rejected proposal, this parallel zombie world’s martial arts styling weaves brilliantly with Austen’s original text.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016), directed by Burr Steers, is distributed in the UK by Lionsgate. Certificate 15