“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. Never was this truth more plain than at the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which an entire household was slaughtered by a horde of the living dead during a whist party.”
Based on the book by Seth Grahame-Smith, which is in turn based on the book by Jane Austen and adapted for the screen by writer/director Burr Steers, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies personifies the creatures it depicts by regenerating a two-hundred-year-old story and a worn to death genre and creating something full of life. It takes the tale of the Bennet sisters and their matrimonial entanglements much further than Austen’s original by adding undead battles, walled cities and ballroom fight scenes to the classic text.
Zombies are a fact of life now. They have been for nearly a hundred years since this plague arrived, and England has adapted. Class struggles exist as they did before, but are now played out behind walls and fortresses. It is not enough that a lady should be proficient in music, singing, drawing, and dancing but also weapon skills and the martial arts. The class distinctions are melded with the new world well, the fact of whether you trained in poorer China or richer Japan being a mark of one’s wealth and class.
The film establishes the world quickly, showing us Colonel Darcy (Maleficent’s Sam Riley) arrive at a fortified country estate and interrupt the card games with his suspicion of an undetected zombie at the party. The juxtaposition of parlour games and decapitations sets up the mood of what is to come.
We see Darcy as an experienced hand at both detecting and dispatching the undead and the audience are introduced to the precautions country estates require, from large barbed metal wheels in place of wall sections to full body inspections of unexpected guests, giving a very clear sense of this alternative England.
A narrated introduction by Mr Bennet (the eloquent tones of Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance) fills in the rest of gaps: the zombie plague infected our shores and ran rampant through the country. London was fortified with the Great Barrier, a 100-foot wall encircling the city, and beyond that lies the Royal Canal, a deep moat surrounding the city and the area known as “the in-between.”
“In the second battle of Kent, one of the bridges across the Royal Canal was breached. Ravenous zombie hordes massacred every villager of the in-between. It was said the sight of this slaughter drove young King George mad.”
With the setting in place, we are introduced to the Bennet family, Mr Bennet’s main concern being that his daughters remain safe from the undead and that he has ensured they have the fighting skills of warriors while Mrs Bennet (Miranda’s Sally Phillips) looks to the matrimonial possibilities of her daughters. The five Bennet sisters are Elizabeth (Wrath of the Titans’ Lily James, headstrong, determined, and quick witted, the more naïve Jane (Dark Shadows’ Bella Heathcote) thought of as the most beautiful and the most likely to marry well (according to her mother who ranks her children on this criteria), Kitty, Lydia and Mary, largely interchangeable in regards to the plot.
A dance at the newly reoccupied Netherfield Hall allows Mrs Bennet to try and get one of her daughters noticed by the eligible Mr Bingley (Jupiter Ascending’s Douglas Booth) and perhaps if she is lucky marry off the others to husbands who will provide and protect; “Daughters do not dance well with masticated brains.” With Darcy accompanying Bingley the ballroom scene allows our heroes and heroines to meet each other and two potential love stories emerge, Darcy and Elizabeth’s friction fraught “will they / won’t they,” and Jane and Bingley’s “they will if something doesn’t inevitably get in the way.”’
Leading from the zombie threat to romantic period drama the film might be expected to sag but the chemistry and interaction between the characters takes over. James and Riley have a good onscreen dynamics which mix with Austen’s strong characters and witty dialogue, the natural levity of period drama brightening events without it ever falling into the trap of parody. While Shaun of the Dead may have started the zom-rom-com era, there is a case to be made that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the culmination of that genre, bookending it well.
The action sequences are well choreographed and Steers times them well, neither excessively long nor unsatisfyingly brief, and that alone is a credit in these days of endless fight scenes. The pacing throughout and the natural switch from action to drama flows very well through the one and three quarter hours.
The strong supporting cast including Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey, and former Doctor Who Matt Smith could have easily overshadowed the main players had they gone for weaker choices, but while Smith’s pompous clown Parson Collins absolutely shines in every scene the principals are not the diminished by sharing screen time.
Riley’s Mr Darcy quickly overcomes the hurdle of “not being Colin Firth” and while it would have been wonderful to see Firth reprise the role, Riley does a fine job as the battle-worn colonel, more at home on the battlefield than the ballroom. James’ Elizabeth is superb and delivers Austen’s dialog expertly, as sharp as the swords which have been added, the two hundred years since the book’s publication not having blunted the edge nor diminished the brightness.
The tension between the two reaching a fever point where they move between wit and martial combat effortlessly, Heathcoate and Booth are equally believable as the unfeasibly attractive love-struck couple. Lieutenant George Wickham (Kill Your Darlings’ Jack Huston) is a compelling rival to Darcy for Elizabeth’s affection and his strong ideas on how to resolve the ongoing zombie war round out the character.
Despite minimal deviations from the plot other than the obvious, some purists may feel that Austen has been diluted or that the source material has not been used as completely as possible, but it is more likely that this will serve as a good introduction to her work for a new generation. Voted second only to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in the BBC’s UK’s Best-Loved Book poll of 2003, it is a novel which already demonstrates zombie-like abilities to keep being resurrected stronger than ever.
By mixing a tired genre with a timeless classic, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has succeeded where other adaptations such as Grahame-Smith’s own Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunterhad failed. At a point when zombie movies and television shows have been worn to death and beyond, this feels neither like a careless parody nor an overly serious period piece, and it is surprisingly refreshing to have something so fun and enjoyable arrive.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is on DVD and Blu-Ray from Monday 27th June 2016 and on Digital HD from Monday 20th June 2016.