The awkward sounding Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has seen its fair share of developmental ups and downs since 2009. At one point David O. Russell was attached to write and direct with Natalie Portman set to star as Elizabeth Bennet. Eventually Portman would drop out of her acting duties but remain as producer – delayed projects being something of a theme for Portman this year (see the disappointing Jane Got a Gun). The film finally stuck with writer and director Burr Steers (“17 Again,” “Igby Goes Down”) and a cast that includes Lily James (“Cinderella”), Sam Riley (“Control”), Lena Headey, and Matt Smith.
Expect very little going into Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (PPZ for short) and the rewards offered by this adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody novel are much sweeter. For those unfamiliar with the original (or original parody), PPZ is a mash-up of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that finds room to integrate flesh-chomping zombies, propelling its 19th century story in an unexpected direction and making it, ironically, livelier.
If the mash-up of classic literature with horror lacks the bite it otherwise might have had, it’s because we’ve already seen an adaptation of another of Grahame-Smith’s parody novels – Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which, chronologically, was actually published after Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
The five Bennet sisters seek to get married off to classes wealthier than than own, except for Elizabeth that is. Like Austen’s novel, she’s not necessarily looking for marriage, which is a hindrance for her as she’d have to give up a life of badassery. One would-be suitor, Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston), declares Liz must give up her life as a warrior, something she’s not excited to simply let go.
Besides beauty and the prospects of meeting their lifelong companions, the Bennet sisters exercise their proficient skills with the blade and musket. These girls are different than their alternate counterparts in Austen’s universe: they’ve been taught to fend for themselves against unwanted suitors and the undead alike by their father (Charles Dance).
Cue in Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley), who is not in the least bit interested in trifles with women, or love for that matter, as he’s laser focused on curbing the zombie problem of Victorian-era England. He meets his match in Elizabeth; his sardonic demeanor and Elizabeth’s wit and sarcasm makes for a match made in heaven. But, as you’d expect, their somewhat similar personalities clash and clash often. One very funny moment has the pair jostle and roll around in a battle of physicality and wit with Liz garnering the upper-hand (naturally).
Amidst Bennet’s navigation of high society and opulent soirees – and the occasional zombie attack- PPZ bites too much from Austen’s novel and struggles to balance the mashup genres. Too many moments feel like a straightforward Austen adaptation while others feel like isolated zombie vignettes peppered throughout to fulfill its undead requirement. Ultimately, the film can’t galvanize either genre into one fluid film, switching from one to the other with abrupt staccato.
Nevertheless, there are incredibly and genuinely funny moments, especially between Darcy and Elizabeth, who play their characters well. Lily James is fun to watch as strong and righteous Liz navigating through Victorian society and taking down zombies; Riley’s sardonic Darcy is subtlety comical, too busy to smile while he’s smashing skulls.
At times brilliant, funny, and entertaining, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies suffers from a lack of unity, fighting with itself in deciding just what kind of movie it wants to be. Sometimes this abruptness works for comical and shock effect, although a cohesive and more incorporated approach might have worked in its favor. Essentially, the film can be described as Pride and Prejudice – only with haphazard zombie moments that never fully propel the narrative as much as Liz Bennet’s societal and marital dilemma does. Try putting that on a poster, though.