PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES Movie Review – Too Late, Too Late
If the phrase “Too soon, too soon,” has a corollary, it’s, of course, the opposite: “Too late, too late,” four words that aptly, succinctly describe Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, the too-long-in-the-making, once-anticipated, now yawn-inducing adaptation of Seth Graham-Smith’s (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) Jane Austen mash-up of the same name. Published seven years ago (a veritable eternity in book-to-screen adaptation time), Graham-Smith’s conceptually clever, low-brow/high-brow genre mash-up seemed destined to receive the big screen treatment, especially given the then (and now) ubiquity of the titular zombies in popular culture. They were and continue to be everywhere, too often to our collective and individual detriment. But unfortunately here we are again, with neutered, PG-13 zombies (most of the kills occur tastefully offscreen, minus one or three CGI-aided decapitations) and a gimmick premise that barely justifies a one or two sentence recap, let alone an entire film.
Seth Graham-Smith didn’t stray far Jane Austen’s 1813 novel of class, gender, and romance in Regency England. Rather than begin with the zombie apocalypse, however, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies opens years later after a stalemate of sorts between the warring sides has set in. The new status quo means that London and the surrounding areas have been heavily fortified and the Queen’s Army remains on high alert, ready and willing to swoop in anywhere at any time to dispatch the undead before they spread their contagion any further. To that end, the novel’s Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) has been elevated from a wealthy, idle aristocrat to a wealthy, active colonel in the Queen’s Army. He’s relentless in tracking down the plague-carrying undead – swooping in to a fellow aristocrat’s party under the cover of night to terminate, with extreme prejudice, a first-stage zombie (virtually undetectable before face- and body-rot sets in) – but he’s the same Mr. Darcy countless generations have swooned over. He’s stubborn, prideful, and arrogant. He’s also wealthy and when pushed, a man of deep feeling and emotional reserve.
Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, however, doesn’t belong to Mr. Darcy – if any film could belong to a single character, that is – but to the Bennet sisters, Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) in particular. Still as stubborn, prideful, and arrogant as her male counterpart and future romantic partner, Elizabeth has been reimagined as a knife- and sword-wielding martial artist, capable of taking down legions of the undead on her own or with the help of her equally capable sisters. In a welcome gender reversal, Elizabeth can handle herself as well as or even better than the men in her life. She’s so proficient at zombie-killing that she puts those same men at unease, more or less questioning their masculinity (or their respective notions of such). When the inevitable final battle (semi-final since the ending leaves an opening for a sequel if box-office returns prove highly positive) arrives, Graham-Smith and director Burt Steers (Charlie St. Cloud, 17 Again, Igby Goes Down) smartly let Elizabeth take the lead and not relegating her to damsel-in-distress status.
Much of Jane Austen’s witty banter survives the mash-up, though to a lesser extent, of course, than a straightforward adaptation like Joe Wright’s 2005 justly celebrated adaptation. With an external, existential threat (i.e., zombies), other themes and issues, including the Regency period’s gender/class structure Austen so ably dissected in her novel, are, if not entirely left unaddressed, then pushed permanently into the background. For all that, though, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies manages to take a few, telling blows at the patriarchy and the limits thereof. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that one of strongest, most regal characters is a woman, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey), or that the affirmation of Elizabeth and Darcy’s romantic bond/partnership/marriage is even more clearly one of equals than of subservience or convenience.
For all of its strengths, however, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies still feels like a one-off joke shared between slightly drunk friends at a dinner party turned into an expensive, two-hour period piece. Steers repeatedly stumbles when it comes to tone, opting for light comedy, occasional farce, and semi-gruesome parody (that “semi” comes from the PG-13 rating), often within the same scene. The tongue-in-rotted-cheek approach pays dividends early on, of course, but by the time Pride & Prejudice & Zombies moves into action mode, the light, parodic tone seems to have gone elsewhere. It doesn’t help that we’ve seen this approach, most unmemorably a few years with another adaptation of a Graham-Smith mash-up, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. At least the big-screen adaptation of that Graham-Smith novel had the benefit of hyper-kinetic, ultra-stylish direction and a well-deserved R-rating (complete with buckets of blood and too-many-to-count decapitations).