The image above encapsulates one of the (many) problems with Burr Steers’ totally unnecessary adaptation of the novelty book Pride And Prejudice And Zombies.
Firstly, the film’s chief plus point is also featured. The women here are just as capable as their male counterparts and frequently more so; training, arming and defending themselves against the zombie hoards that shuffle stupidly across Austen’s Hertfordshire. They are articulate in conversation and debate. They are for the most part architects of their own destiny (as much as society permits in such times). They are the heroes of the film. Great. Steers clearly took a leaf from George Miller’s book when he took his seat to watch Mad Max: Fury Road.
The problem is he has skewered that sensibility through a far more retrograde one, fetishising his subjects at nearly every given opportunity. The camera lingers lustily on heaving bosoms or raised dresses, or goes full-Baywatch, deploying slow-motion as Steers covets his whirling beauties brandishing their weapons, tits bouncing around gloriously.
This is far from the only example of mixed intent in a movie which is fundamentally based on an idea that’s better in mind than it is on paper, let alone a big screen. Some years back I actually read Seth Graham-Smith’s bastardisation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It’s a funny idea and the book has a funny cover, so okay. One thing that immediately became clear was how lazy it was. Graham-Smith had merely implanted random sentences, switched out the odd word, occasionally been as generous as to throw in a couple of wholly new paragraphs. His reticence to really engage with the text seemed to boil down to his inferiority as a writer. Man, you knew when he’d taken over.
Steers’ film falls into exactly the same sink hole. When Austen’s voice is given enough room to assert itself, things generally pick up. The original text is absorbing and snatches of it are played here quite well. Yet the zombie gimmick is just that; a one-joke punchline that becomes very tiresome, very quickly. The Bennet sisters contend with the expectations of their times… and then zombies happen. The Bennet sisters contend with the expectations of their times… and then zombies happen.
And zombies talk now. And play cards. And hold meetings. And arrange traps. They’re basically zombies in name only, apparently best detected with a vial of flies (not, say, having a sniff because dead things tend to smell fuck-awful). In fact, as things progress, it becomes clear that they represent the working classes becoming awkwardly untidy and conspicuous in the eyes of their ‘betters’. The rise of a zombie aristocracy even foretells the genesis of the middle class. I was reminded of the Big Train sketch that riffed on Hitchcock’s The Birds (if you’ve seen it you’ll know the one). Taken in this more political context, what happens throughout the film is downright troubling.
Fortunately it’s very difficult to take Pride And Prejudice And Zombies so seriously. When zombies are around, competent filmmaking falters as though the one most afraid of these pathetic creatures is Steers himself. Action often takes place in indecipherable gloom, is choppily, incoherently edited or a combination of the above. These scenes are kept as mercifully brief as possible. Good news for people who don’t like bad filmmaking, but bad news for anyone turning up who wanted, y’know, a zombie movie.
With the working classes/zombies thoroughly marginalised, that leaves the eclectic cast with a lot of film to carry. There’s a mixed report there as well. The women outshine the men at pretty much every turn. Lily James comes out of this with the most dignity, giving Elizabeth Bennet the grit and verve and gumption she requires. She’s actually really quite good, arguably far better than the film deserves and makes a strong case for future leading roles. Elsewhere former Smack The Pony and Green Wing alumni Sally Phillips is pleasing to see again in a more matronly role, while Lena Headey puts the requisite amount of spirit into her turn as panto-villain Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
The men are fairly feeble. Douglas Booth, here playing Mr Bingley, continues an unbroken trend of seeming to have been cast for his square face and having more lips than a Rolling Stones sticker. Boardwalk Empire‘s Jack Huston is better, but almost as wasted as Charles Dance. Sam Riley is so stiff and diffident as Mr Darcy that it’s impossible to tell if he gives a shit about anything and he has zero chemistry with Lily James, pouring cold water on the embers of their romance. And then there’s Matt Smith, the personification of the phrase less-is-more. His bumbling, foppish, useless Parson Collins initially appears as a welcome dose of animation to proceedings. But Steers relies on him too much, and he quickly becomes irksome.
So it’s a mess, all in all. But novelty items rarely find endurance, save for the bittersweet pang of nostalgia that they inherent years even decades down the line. Unfortunately for Pride And Prejudice And Zombies the possibility of anyone wanting to return to it is a rank outsider.