It is a truth universally acknowledged that no one really expected Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to be much good. Silly, campy fun, assuredly, but no more than an amusing trifle to mindlessly while away the passing moments. Well, anyone even fleetingly familiar with the works of Ms. Austen would know that to judge a book by its cover is exceedingly naughty, while anyone with passing knowledge of the zombie film would know that a surprising amount are replete with brains in more ways than one. Thus, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies haughtily thrusts its chin in the direction of naysayers, by boldly delivering all the silliness its title proclaims - only with the distinctly Mr. Darcy-like twist of bringing some of the best of its composite parts rather than what first impressions might suggest.
For a film seemingly more akin to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, from the director of two consecutive pieces of Zac Efron fluff,P&P&Z from its opening moments onward, for a film so intentionally campy and stupid, is surprisingly sharp and on-point. Rather than pumping the contrast between its two warring influences strictly for laughs, writer/director Burr Steers is astute enough to realize the laughs need not be forced, but come far more unreservedly by committing to the premise as sincerely as possible. If anything, the film's biggest gag is being more satisfying as an Austen adaptation than zombie flick, as there's nitpicking to be had with the film's P3-13 violence (although Steers gets as gleefully gory as he can within ratings parameters), and running/talking zombies alike. Still, the twinkling aristocratic wit of Austenian England and the weary gallows humour of an apocalyptic action flick blend surprisingly well into one another, and Steers' adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith's loving riff taps into the meat of the story, allowing the slog of a zombie war to tease out and accentuate the key elements of Austen's satire and characterizations alike (and let's face it: social faux-pas are just so much more satisfying when underscored with cathartic flip-kicks and decapitations). The novel's most beloved moments (including a slick lampooning of the infamous 'Mr. Darcy white shirt' scene) and key lines are often paired with plucky physical sparring, amidst perfectly timed bloodbaths just when proceedings start to stray more into Pride and Prejudice than Zombies.
But Steers doesn't stop there, germinating some surprisingly interesting subtext - subtle aristocratic class distinctions are determined by whether citizens receive their anti-zombie martial arts training in Japan or China, while a sliding scale of zombie sentience allows for a realm of gentrified xenophobia relatively untapped in the genre. It's a bit of a shame that such a genuinely excellent setup slides into somewhat of a disappointingly mundane finish, replete with muddy, abandoned 'Horsemen of the Apocalypse' mythology, and several subplots jumbling together in a messy and unsatisfying resolution. To see the dual climaxes of the novel's swooniness and the make-or-break mass showdown of the zombie war verge on face-planting rather than soaring is a bummer indeed. Still, Steers maintains such a confidently jaunty touch throughout, letting the ball dances lilt and the fight scenes crackle (including at least two unexpected, thunderously loud head shots which serve as riotous punchlines), that the film is almost never less than fabulously vibrant and more fun than it has any right to be.
Faced with retooling one of the most iconic protagonists in literary history, Lily James' Lizzie Bennett is commendably feisty and badass enough to firmly sate fans of either genre. Though Austen-diehards might fault her controversial slight teariness (you try having to constantly fend off the undead amidst the claustrophobic constraints of polite society and not feeling a little weepy sometimes), James' steely but playful charisma makes her an ideal, genre-straddling lead. Similarly (though his 70-year-old rasp takes some acclimatizing to), Sam Riley's mournful eyes and steadfast chin lend innate depth to the enigmatically brooding Mr. Darcy, and the commanding Riley swelters and sword fights like the best of them. Jack Huston perfectly blends the debonair affability and sinister unsavoury attributes of Mr. Wickham with a passionately invested energy, while Bella Heathcote and Douglas Booth are each adorably earnest as the tale's 'other' star-crossed lovers, and Charles Dance and Sally Phillips are deliciously slyly witty and boorishly superficial as Mr. and Mrs. Bennett. Still, the film may as well have been rebranded "The Matt Smith Show," as the former Doctor is nothing short of perennially hysterical as the prissy Mr. Collins, his every utterance, every facial expression, every snobbishly prancing step a scene-stealing, belly-laugh-erupting delight, in one of the most consistently pristine comedic performances seen in years.
Taking the p*ss out of historical romance and lending substance to axe-in-face escapism, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies blends the pleasures of its twain influences to a surprisingly satisfying degree. It's easily the most charming rom-zom-com since Shaun of the Dead (though, to be fair, the competition leaves something to be desired...) while a deceptively hearty Austen revamp to boot, and hugely enjoyable for audiences endeared to one, the other, or both. In fact, with such good fortune at hand, we're really only in want of one thing: bring on Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, please.
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