2016 . 1h 48m . Comedy, Horror, Romance, Thriller .
Five sisters in 19th century England must cope with the pressures to marry while protecting themselves from a growing population of zombies.
Cast: Lily James, Lena Headey, Matt Smith, Douglas Booth, Aisling Loftus, Jack Huston, Sam Riley, Charles Dance, Emma Greenwell, Bella Heathcote, Suki Waterhouse, Ellie Bamber, Hermione Corfield, Millie Brady, Sally Phillips, Dolly Wells, Jess Radomska, Ryan Oliva, Morfydd Clark, Pooky Quesnel, Janet Henfrey
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains," says the sardonic opening line of Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a darkly humorous hybridization of two popular cinematic traditions: the lavish Jane Austen adaptation and the grimy zombie film. One joke title aside, this is a smart, funny, energetic and fiercely original take on the sub-genre of horror which, generally speaking, limps along as lifelessly as the undead creatures it typically features.
The story will be familiar to anyone who has read Jane Austen's classic novel or seen any number of adaptations, reimaginings and reboots previously brought to the screen over the past several years. The plot: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (Charles Dance and Sally Phillips) are eager to marry off their roughly half-dozen daughters to wealthier men of good repute with...mixed results. Would that this were their only area of concern. However, true to the film's literary origins, as we learn from a credit sequence which doubles as a kind of animated pop up book with narration by Dance's protective but pragmatic father figure, there is a zombie plague verging on apocalypse scouring the land and taking everyone in sight. The Bennet sisters are one group of many who have trained to fight the zombie scourge, learning a Chinese fighting style involving swords, martial arts and self defense mechanisms.
This is rather to the chagrin of mildly famous zombie hunter, mopey and caddish Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), who falls for tough, pretty but prideful eldest daughter Elizabeth (Lily James), begrudgingly and little by little though the attraction may come. Mr. Darcy is also the nephew of the brutally violent and no less verbally so Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey of 300 fame), a one-eyed monster whose reputation precedes her.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth's sister Jane (Bella Heathcoate of Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella) catches the eye of Mr. Darcy's fellow army officer Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth). Then there's the complication involving George Wickham (Jack Huston), a darkly handsome and recently arrived past rival of Mr. Darcy who harbors a dark secret or two. And finally, Elizabeth in particular is an object of affection for cousin Parson Collins (a riotous Matt Smith of Dr. Who), an obnoxious and flirty ponce who clings desperately to the idea of marrying...someone.
If the sight of "muscular but feminine" she-toughs flashing their pantyhose and bloomers in slow motion while sheathing daggers on the verge of major parties and impaling the undead with hatchets to save the men they love sounds like your cup of tea, you should enjoy this. It's all pretty (severed) tongue in cheek, with a dead(brain)pan humor that is...infectious.
Austen's tale of a tough, pretty young woman and her sisters facing lives of spinster-hood would not survive today's Bechdel test were it not for the addition of zombie horror and violence to the equation. Austen has been adapted many times, with 1995-96 being a particular watershed moment for cinematic interpretation: from Roger Michell's Persuasion to Douglas McGrath's Emma (itself running as a kind of counterpoint to Amy Heckerling's inspired high school adaptation Clueless the year prior), from Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility to Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park (1999; my personal favorite). There is even the upcoming Whit Stillman adaptation of the novella Lady Susan, titled Love & Friendship and due out this summer. However, this already familiar story has been told many times before, in Joe Wright's 2005 adaptation with Keira Knightly, as well as the famed BBC mini-series featuring Colin Firth. Firth also appeared in the clever modernization of the concept Bridget Jones's Diary (2001), and Bollywood even got in on the act with Bride and Prejudice (2005). So...yeah, it's a tale as old as time.
The film has been written and directed by Burr Steers, no stranger to bitterly-humorous witticisms amongst those in the bitchier echelons of high society; having been an actor in Stillman's The Last Days of Disco (1998), his first feature was Igby Goes Down (2004), an acidically funny coming of age tale of a spoiled private school brat's navigation of familial and personal trials peppered with great dialogue. Further, he understands how to take a high concept and run with it, carrying it beyond a one-joke premise, as he did with the more-entertaining-than-it-needed-to-be 17 Again (2009), a father-son body switcheroo featuring the unlikely duo of Matthew Perry and Zac Efron (he reteamed with Efron again the following year for Charlie St. Cloud, the less said about which the better).
Steers' adaptation of the book by Grahame-Smith trans-mutates Austen's world to the screen more or less in tact, with the basic shapes and contours of plot machinations, inter-personal dynamics and character and dialogue used as a clothesline for the YA-oriented (PG-13 rated) gore and bone-crunching violence of this take. The visuals are dark and moody, the music appropriately grim and dramatic when need be. The casting seems pretty spot on, particularly James as a Keira Knightley-ish Elizabeth Bennet and Sam Riley of Joy Division biopic Control (2007) as wet blanket Darcy. I particularly enjoyed Matt Smith's foppish Mr. Collins, who can sell a punchline to a scene or make an odd facial expression, or a verbal aside, or a funny noise the best part of a scene single-handedly.
Ultimately, this was a surprisingly enjoyable (post-)modern twist on a familiar tale; indeed, more entertaining than it really needed to be. I have an inkling, however, that the more you like Jane Austen and/or zombie horror, the more likely you are to enjoy it.