When Seth Grahame-Smith’s “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” took the literary world and bestseller list by storm in 2009, it was inevitable that a film adaptation couldn’t be too far behind. Taking all the period beauty, elegance, character development and story structure of Jane Austen’s beloved “Pride and Prejudice”, not to mention her exquisite verbiage and linguistic styling (and in many cases her actual text), and mashing that with the infiltration of a zombie plague, the result was pure deliciousness. Then enter writer/director Burr Steers wielding his mighty pen and lens, breathing visual imagery and life into the words on the page, creating first a zombie world, into which he then places Jane Austen’s classic Regency Era for an unforgettably entertaining and cinematic “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, complete with a hilarious scene stealing performance by Matt Smith as Parson Collins.
But before we go any further, for all you die hard “Pride and Prejudice” fans out there, and even all you literary “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” fans, take heed. While Sam Riley is here one of the most seductive Mr. Darcy’s to have graced the big or small screen, neither he nor anyone else will ever replace on the screen or in our hearts, the seminal Mr. Darcy – Colin Firth. (There will be no comparisons here between the two as no one will dethrone Firth.)
Our story begins with an amusing prologue as we meet Fitzwilliam Darcy; a gentleman, a nobleman, a man of great wealth, a man who seeks out zombies who are plaguing the nation and insinuating themselves into polite society. . .before politely killing innocents, eating their brains and turning them into zombies as well. Darcy is a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to zombie destruction. Accompanying this prologue are gorgeous opening titles depicted in an almost bedtime storybook format which sets the unmistakable tone of the film.
Now given the lay of the land, we meet the Bennet sisters; eldest sister Jane, fiery independent Elizabeth, followed by Lydia, Mary and Kitty. Their father Charles has always been most concerned about the girls being able to protect themselves in these zombie-ridden times and thus, sent all away to a Shaolin temple for zombie combat training. (As we learn, there are two schools of fighting – Chinese trained and Japanese trained. All the upper crust learn in Japan while girls like the Bennets go to China.) On the other hand, their mother is more concerned about finding suitable husbands for each of the girls, something that irritates Elizabeth to no end and is the last thing on her mind.
Ever maintaining more than a modicum of manners and civility, when visiting soldiers, dignitaries or mucky-muck relatives come to town, it requires parties. And a party it is when the dashing Mr. Bingley arrives and is more than smitten with the sweet Jane Bennet. Joining in the festivities is Bingley’s friend, Darcy as well as the Bryl-creamed and hair-gelled slick Mr. Wickham, a soldier in Bingley’s regiment with a rather mysterious past linked to Darcy.
While Jane and Bingley take an immediate liking to one another, Darcy and Elizabeth have their own sparring match of wits going on, with sparks flying right and left and infusing the film as a whole with their undeniable attraction. Possibly muddying the waters though is Mr. Wickham who clearly likes Elizabeth and she may have taken a shine to him as well; something that doesn’t seem to sit well with Darcy judging by the look on his face. And of course, smack dab in the middle of marriage muddling is Mrs. Darcy trying to pawn off Elizabeth on the foppish and foppishly funny, Parson Collins. And through it all, the citizens of the borough are readying for what may be the zombie battle to end all zombie battles.
Days and weeks pass as tensions increase, romance goes up and down like the horses on a carousel, trickery and deceit abound, and the blood-letting and brain eating runs rampant with zombies and humans both falling like flies. Will Mrs. Bennet get her girls married? Will Jane hook Mr. Bingley? Will Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy take their sparring to the next level or will she fall victim to the “charms” of Parson Collins? And what of the slick Mr. Wickham? Who is he, really? And just what will become of the aristocratic lifestyle the Bennets and Darcy are fighting so desperately to save from zombies?
We know that Lily James can be the most proper Englishwoman around thanks to her work in “Downton Abbey”. We also know she can be the loveliest of all princesses having seen her swirling in Swarovski in “Cinderella.” But here, as Elizabeth Bennet, sporting dark hair as opposed to her signature blonde, she’s kicking corsets and taking names with an elegant ferocity and enthusiasm to rival “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” How many women do you know that can double-knife zombies with their pinkies raised? This is a role custom made for James. Compounding her physical agility and presence is her rapier dialogue delivery, with some of the most tongue-in-cheek being done straight-faced which just adds to the fun. She is at her ripest when going toe-to-toe with Sam Riley’s Mr. Darcy either with verbal sparring or slamming with him a roundhouse kick. Together the two are pure electricity, with most sparks coming from the glaring silent exchanges between them.
As the other half of this zombie-fighting dynamic duo, Sam Riley exudes raw sex appeal. Written by both Grahame-Smith in the book and Steers in the screenplay as much stronger with much more intensity than what we have seen in various Darcy incarnations in the past, Riley brings a haunting enticement to the role. And like James, his physicality and agility in execution of the fight sequencing is undeniable.
As Jane, Bella Heathcote is an ideal sibling complement to James’ Elizabeth, and like James, Heathcote is as at ease sipping tea from a china cup as she is sidekicking zombies. Charles Dance lovingly embodies the doting father who wants to insure his girls capable of taking care of themselves while Sally Phillips is a constant source of lighthearted tittering with her take on Mrs. Bennet.
When it comes to the rest of the men in the pack, Douglas Booth does an adequate job as Mr. Bingley. Baby-faced and more looks than substance, Booth fills the bill nicely. On the other hand, Jack Huston dazzles. He plays to the old Hollywood glamour of his own pedigree and is beyond believable as the young officer, always in a full dress red uniform, not one slicked back hair out of place on his head, gleaming white teeth and poreless skin. But the scene-stealer of the film is Matt Smith and his performance as Parson Collins. Beyond hilarious. Every second he is on screen, you will find yourself filled with peels of laughter. There is not a single scene in which he doesn’t garner laughs. And as an audience member, you eat it up.
Where Steers excels with this adaptation is in its matter-of-factness and the mundane. The ability to find the humor in the simplicity of a family sitting down to an elegant breakfast with sunlight streaming through window sheers as the girls sharpen and polish their weaponry, and nary bat an eye while talking about the weather and “mister or missus so and so”, is not only a wicked delight, but key to the tonal cadence. Adhering rather closely to Austen’s own story of the Bennet sisters, Steers steeps us in the agonies of courtship thrust upon them by their mother, but counters with the tongue-in-cheek humor of killing zombies while in empire-waisted gowns. Watching the girls giggle over readying for a ball while adjusting gun belts, knives, darts, crossbows, etc. as undergarments while society ladies are poofing and foofing their hair and their gowns is richly humorous. It is this very self-awareness and winking at the aristocratic societal structures of the day that do as much for the film’s grammar visually as it does tonally. Serving almost as punctuation marks in text, the zombie-fighting mirrors not only the societal mores of the day, but the verbal and visual grammar of the Bennet girls and their “romances.”
Interesting is the visual design of Steers and his cinematographer Remi Adefarasin, the latter of whom is renowned for his work on “Elizabeth” and “Elizabeth: The Golden Age.” There is often a lingering of the camera during fight scenes, akin to salivating over a kill. There is less of an urgency of camera movement, as they allow the action to speak for itself rather than use shots and rapid cuts to attain the desired intensity. Lighting is reflective of mood and done so beauteously during the ballroom gala with golden notes layered over the room. Similarly, we are shown the starkness of black, white, red with shadows and harsh light during third act scenes between Elizabeth and Wickham while the Bennet home (but for the training basement) is always lighted softly and in a welcoming fashion.
Noticeable is the choreography of not only the zombie fight scenes but how they are given the same weight as that for a ballroom waltz. It’s a beautiful parallel. Adding to the visual tapestry, Steers provides us with all sorts of aristocratic zombies, albeit too few for my taste. Each bleeds yet another color into the overall portrait.
Standout is the costuming of Julian Day who not only captures the look of the era perfectly, but in designing costumes for the Bennet sisters, incorporates practical considerations for fighting. They may be wearing floor-length empire-waisted gowns, but each gown has wafting fabric that allows for it to be slit or paneled in its construction to facilitate action.
Bloody delicious, it’s “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, oh my!
Directed by Burr Steers
Written by Burr Steers based on the novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith based on Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”
Cast: Lily James, Sam Riley, Bella Heathcote, Jack Huston, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Sally Phillips