Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Rating:

UNIVERSAL ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Main Cast: Lily James, Sam Riley

Director: Burr Steers

Donkeys grazing CC-BY-SA

Absolutely not!

I was despairing of finding a project for a star of my stature as I kept reading through the scripts that had come into the production office over the last few weeks.  There were several pitches for new reality television shows but after my last experiences with one I’m non-plussed; I am not in a hurry to be seen sharing a kitchen with Guy Fieri or teaching underprivileged children the intricacies of water ballet.   As for the concept ‘Tap That Ass:  Down on the Mule Farm with Vicki Lester’, the less said the better.  I have no interest in giving credence to those vile rumors of my early career in that little Tijuana speakeasy where I was very briefly employed as a chanteuse.

The very last envelope in the pile, however, was a different story.  I took one look at the world famous author from whose celebrated novel the script came and realized that the proffered role was indeed the title character. I knew that this could indeed be the project to get my career humming along again.  I immediately called Joseph, my manager, and told him to enter negotiations right away.   Then, recognizing that the role is of such depth, nuance and dance athleticism, I called up Lulu Pigg, my tap therapist and Miss Mimi, my vocal coach and had them come over right away.  I have to get right into training and be in top physical form if I am going to give it my all.

The two ladies arrived within the hour and I mixed us up a large pitcher of mimosas and we all headed into the studio where we whipped up a quick little routine to ‘Get Happy’, one of my favorite songs, and buried ourselves in the work necessary to maintain one of the great stars of stage and screen at fighting weight and ready for action.  By two o’clock, we were ready to call it a day so I suggested another pitcher of mimosas, some petit fours and that we repair together to the home theater.  Flipping through the to view pile of DVDs, we ran across the film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies that had been released earlier this year to little acclaim and less business.  As we are all fans of both Jane Austen and the zombie apocalypse, it seemed like a good idea to pop it in the player for a look.

The film is based on a 2009 novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith in which he took Jane Austen’s beloved classic of the prickly romance between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy and added the attack of the zombie hordes.  The ludicrous mashup of genteel comedy of manners with ultra-violent dismemberments was a huge hit at Barnes and Nobles all over the country. Natalie Portman immediately snapped up the film rights to star and produce (later dropping out as star but remaining as producer) and the film entered development hell and multiple rewrites before finally emerging under the guidance of writer/director Burr Steers, failed actor and Hollywood director of little consequence.

In this alternate reality (introduced through a rather clever credits sequence taking its cues from an early 19th century pop-up book), a foreign plague has come to 18th century England turning many of its citizenry into brain eating zombies.  The gentry have holed up in their great country houses while the zombies roam the countryside in search of fresh victims.  In order to survive, the sons and daughters of the wealthy are sent abroad to Japan and China to study with ninja warriors and other martial artists as part of their lessons in deportment.  As in Austen, Mr. Bennett (Charles Dance) of Longbourn house has five unmarried daughters and Mrs. Bennett (Sally Phillips) is determined to marry them all off to suitable young men of income and good family.  The oldest daughter, Jane (Bella Heathcote), catches the eye of the wealthy Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) while tart tongued and witty Elizabeth (Lily James) is by turns attracted and repulsed by his friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley).  The younger sisters act predominantly as decoration in empire waist dresses other than Lydia (Ellie Bamber) who falls in with the caddish army lieutenant Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston).  There is also the drip of a parson, Mr. Collins (Matt Smith of Dr. Who fame) and his imperious patroness Lady Catherine De Bourgh (Lena Headey) who is Mr. Darcy’s aunt.

So how do zombies fit into all this?  It turns out that both Mr. Darcy and his aunt are zombie hunters of some repute.  (We first meet Mr. Darcy as he tries to thwart a zombie infiltration of a house party).  At the Bingley ball, where Darcy and Elizabeth first meet, a zombie attack sends the Bennett girls into full Bruce Lee mode, and Darcy is smitten with Elizabeth’s abilities as a fighter.  Other Austen plot devices such as Jane’s illness and Wickham’s villainy are also zombified giving the familiar characters a chance to face ravening hordes of undead with muskets, sabers and the occasional thrown object.  The well-known twists and turns of plot lead to the expected double wedding and all ends happily, or does it?

I must confess that I have not read the original novel (although I did pick it up once or twice in the bookstore and peruse random pages).  What I did read was very true to Austen’s vernacular (and whole passages were deliberately lifted from the original thanks to the public domain) and the contrast of elegant prose and absolute mayhem was cheeky and fun.  I could not be bothered to read the whole novel as it struck me that a single joke stretched out over a couple of hundred pages would lose steam around about chapter seven.  The film suffers from the same issue.  The first couple of times the familiar characters move from their stiffly defined social roles to full on chop-sockey, it’s kind of fun but once we’ve seen it, we’ve seen it.  Then there’s an awful lot of forcing of character development to meet the dual elements of Austen and zombie plot which keeps some of our protagonists from seeming human and more like some sort of automata.

There are some things to admire.  Matt Smith gets to display some subtle comic gifts as the hapless parson.  Lily James, Douglas Booth and Bella Heathcote would not be out of place in a more traditional telling of the story.  I was not inclined to like Sam Riley’s Darcy.  His attempts to play the character’s difficult nature came across more as a bad case of constipation than anything else. Old pros Charles Dance and Lena Headey were not given anywhere near enough to do (and Lena Headey’s characterization was a little too close to Queen Cersei from Game of Thrones than it should have been.)

The film has a polished look under the sure hand of production designer David Warren and costume designer Julian Day.  The look is pure BBC Masterpiece Theater making great use of location shooting in 18th century towns and country houses.  There is some unfortunate matte work of London towards the climax of the film, but that can be forgiven.  The zombie effects are relatively restrained.  For plot purposes, this version of the undead needs to be able to pass for the living until rather late in their decomposition.  This means that the gore and oozing pestilence quotient is less than that seen in an average episode of The Walking Dead.  The undead are also not particularly frightening, probably a need to keep the film from having jarring shifts in tone between the Austen and the zombie scenes.  This prevents the film from having any real power as we never really believe that our beloved characters are truly in danger.  If the filmmakers had had the gumption to turn Mrs. Bennett or Lady Catherine or some such into a zombie it might have lifted the movie to another level.  Alas, twas not to be.

Ultimately, the film is an interesting divertissement and will be fun to fans of Austen and fans of the zombie genre.  Anyone else however, is likely to ask themselves ‘what’s the point?’ half way through and change the channel to catch a rerun of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.

Card playing.  Japanese conversation.  Pig brain communion.  Gratuitous fly catching. Wrecked carriage.  Zombie baby.  Burning cityscape.  Gavotte dancing.  Hand chopping.  Multiple zombie attacks.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

photo, author unknown (used within CC-BY-SA parameters)

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