'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' Is in Pursuit of Brains

Lizzy and her sisters spar in the basement while debating the merits of one suitor or another, slamming one another into walls and bearing posts.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Director: Burr Steers
Cast: Lily James, Sam Riley, Lena Headey, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Jack Huston, Charles Dance, Bella Heathcote
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Sony Pictures/Screen Gems
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-02-05 (General release)
UK date: 2016-02-11 (General release)
"My fingers do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault -- because I will not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution."

-- Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

"I have a report that someone has been bitten," announces Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley). Arriving at a whist party at the home of Mrs. Featherstone (Dolly Wells), he surveys the room, his leather boots creaking as he walks. As guests shift in their chairs and stare at the cards in their hands, the lady of the house protests, feebly, inspiring the renowned zombie killer and defender of humans to explain that symptoms aren’t immediately visible. "We are all well aware of how it works," she sniffs. At which point Darcy asks to sit down to play a hand.

As you might gather from this early scene in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the idea is to mix Jane Austen's close observations of British propriety with monster movies. A primary and occasionally comedic tension emerges in contrasts between people's efforts to maintain order and decorum amid the massive and perpetual chaos represented by a zombie invasion. (It's a tension most vividly noted in the opening credits sequence, a careening through paper dolls and sets, horrors as pop-ups).

Thus, both Mrs. Featherstone and Darcy acknowledge their reality -- the chaos -- but also function according to the rules of social engagement. That Darcy proves right and this scene ends with the discovery of a zombie amid the card players, not to mention a brutal, fast-cut fight scene and a beheading, is less surprising than the introduction of a pattern.

That pattern is showcased in Darcy's subsequent engagements with the "warrior daughters" of Mr. Bennet (Charles Dance), in particular Elizabeth (Lily James). The film doesn’t so much take Lizzy's perspective as it sets her against Darcy, as their experiences diverge and intersect. So, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies cuts from its demonstration of Darcy's zombie-fighting skills to an adorable set-piece wherein Lizzy and her sisters are cleaning heir sabers and guns, while Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips) discuss how best to marry them off.

Their dilemma here, as in Austen, has to do with class and money. The girls are awesome, if underdeveloped as characters. They've all been trained in Shaolin martial arts in China, here understood to be a choice based on lack of funds (the better situated families send their children to Japan). This grants Lizzy a predictable chip on her shoulder, and she is inclined to defend her background, resist the condescending courtship of Parson Collins (Matt Smith) and show off her brilliance when in the company of snooty types, the sort with whom Darcy is all too familiar.

Being as he's dour and obsessively focused on killing zombies, he's not exactly quick to pock up on his own attraction to Lizzy or hers to him, and so they spend most of the movie fighting each other, kicking and thrusting and boxing while spitting Austen-ian dialogue. She's too proud, he's too prejudiced. And so on.

The conceit is not un-clever, but it quickly runs into the problem afflicting so many adaptations from much-adored novels, in this case, both Austen's from 1813 and Seth Grahame-Smith's 2009 parody, which is to say rather a lot of characters and episodes and relationships that must be laid out, or at least noted in passing. This makes for a clutter of action and dialogue and a pace that feels slow even if it's not, technically. So, the film cuts between locations, setting up Darcy's wealthy aunt and renowned eye-patched zombie slayer Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey) -- who has "the agility of a black panther!" -- or a nascent community of zombies who promise against all logic and instinct only to eat pig brains rather than human brains, but these transitions can be awkward, and sometimes just distracting.

Certainly viewers might take pleasure in identifying well-known bits or finding a few fresh insights in the movie's juxtapositions, as when Lizzy and her sisters spar in the basement while debating the merits of one suitor or another, slamming one another into walls and bearing posts. Surrounded by girls, Charles Dance's Mr. Bennet is abidingly charming, gently inclined to agree that his daughters needn't give up their warrior ways to become domestic. His long, loving gazes at his daughters and wife remind you that movies are capable of translating witty language into even wittier visuals.

Still, and always, this movie's focus is the difficult romance between Darcy and Lizzy. Their disagreements have them glowering at one another quite a bit, and misunderstanding each other too. Here the wit is less deft, more pronounced. They break tables and chairs and buttoned bodices, their fights rendered as verbal and visual choreographies, some livelier than others.

Lizzy is related to Katniss Everdeen as to Elizabeth Bennet, her fierceness a function of her vulnerability and also her incipient feminism. (Mr. Bennet supports her in all things, though he does worry when, in a fit of anger, she runs off into the woods alone -- so obviously a bad idea when zombies abound.) Still, as Darcy and Lizzy find themselves and each other in the escalating war between humans and zombies, you might end up feeling a little lost.

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