Movie Curiosities: Hail, Caesar!
February 6, 2016
‘CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES’ Exclusive Clip: Starting Early (Explicit)
February 8, 2016

Movie Curiosities: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

A while back, there was a book — and later on, a Timur Bekmambetov picture based on the book — called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. And everyone laughed. How could we not? But look a little bit deeper, and we see that the real-life Lincoln was indeed a bona fide badass who saw a lot of illness and death in his lifetime, and he eventually fought against a power that sought to enslave, rape, and kill those they thought were inferior. So in a twisted kind of way, the premise almost makes a demented kind of sense.

Now let’s look at Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a film based on a book from the same author. Again, the first sensible reaction is to laugh. How could anyone come up with something so impossibly stupid, and who would be dumb enough to buy it?

Those were pretty much my exact thoughts as well, until I chanced upon the trailer.

It bears remembering that Lizzie Bennet is (with the debatable exception of Jane Eyre) the earliest, strongest, most beloved, most iconic proto-feminist character in the history of western literature. But times have changed and we’ve come such a long way from early 19th-century courting rituals that railing against them isn’t enough anymore. Here in the 21st century, we want our feminist icons to be even more proactive. We want them to be every bit as strong and smart as their male peers, capable of taking charge and kicking ass all by themselves.

So here we have a Lizzie Bennet (played here by the erstwhile Cinderella, Lily James, stepping in for producer Natalie Portman) who’s been trained with her sisters from a young age to kill zombies. She’s sexually empowered, physically fit, and more than capable of dispatching any threat in any number of ways. Yet her place on the social ladder hasn’t changed and she still has to deal with all the various peer pressures and unwelcome romantic advances that were present in the original book (by which I of course mean Jane Austen, not Seth Grahame-Smith). Granted, those scenarios have now been filtered through the lens of a zombie apocalypse, but still.

The bottom line is that here we have an early feminist character who’s been reinterpreted with modern feminist standards. Again, in a twisted sort of way, it kinda makes sense.

As for Darcy (here played by Sam Riley), he’s now a colonel and a career zombie hunter. Which means that not only is he another expert in self-defense, but it also means that he’s killed far more than his fair share of people in various states of undead. Furthermore, he’s grown quite used to people lying to his face about whether they or their loved ones have been bitten. This makes his aloof nature much more compelling and sympathetic, as opposed to the book Darcy, who was pretty much an asshole just because.

The shared focus on slaying the undead greatly enhances the interplay between Lizzie and Darcy. They save each other on multiple occasions, which engenders trust and respect. And Darcy is suspicious to the point of prematurely dispatching anyone he thinks could potentially be a zombie, which strains their relationship. And of course, the mere fact that they have something in common is always a big help in advancing any kind of romance.

The other characters are kinda hit-and-miss. Charles Dance appears as Mr. Bennet, and it was such a relief to see Dance have fun with a role for once. By contrast, Douglas Booth appears as Mr. Bingley, and I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive him for Romeo and Juliet (2013). God knows that Noah and Jupiter Ascending didn’t exactly help, but there’s something about this guy’s face and his screen presence that makes me want to punch him.

Moving on, Bella Heathcote did a passable job of playing Jane, though the character has always been a rather weak one without much of any agency in the story. Similarly, Ellie Bamber was stuck playing Lydia, who’s somehow even more useless here than she is in the source material. That of course heavily impacts Kitty (Suki Waterhouse), who never had much of any function other than Lydia’s partner in crime. As for Mary (Millie Brady), she’s… um… well, she’s just kinda there. No surprise, really.

Then we have Mrs. Bennet, traditionally a reliable comic relief character who sadly fails as comic relief because of how Sally Phillips doesn’t overplay her enough. The mantle of comic relief instead falls to Matt Smith, who gets a laugh out of every second playing the pathetically ineffectual toady, Parson Collins. Lena Headey also gets some great moments, perfectly cast as a wickedly badass interpretation of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Last but not least is Jack Huston, here playing this film’s interpretation of Wickham. I don’t want to go into detail about how this film reinterprets the character, but Huston does a fantastic job of selling us this effortlessly handsome and charming snake.

To be perfectly blunt, this cast would never have worked in a straight adaptation of the original book. Luckily, they were cast in a parody of the original book, and their performances have been accordingly adjusted. It works well enough, overall.

That said, it probably comes as little surprise that the best lines of dialogue were either lifted wholesale or at least partially derived from the original text. After all, Jane Austen’s dialogue is a huge reason (quite possibly the ONLY reason) why the book has endured for so long. Even better, the movie takes several of the story’s protracted arguments and enhances them by way of fights. The characters are trading blows while also trading insults. A predictable move, perhaps, but nonetheless effective.

Alas, the new dialogue is poorly written in spots and quite a few line deliveries fall flat on the floor. As for the action scenes… eesh. Writer/director Burr Steers rose through the ranks by way of Igby Goes Down, a couple of Zac Efron movies (at the height of Efron’s “teen heartthrob” days), and a few assorted TV episodes. Steers is no action director, and this movie is proof. While the fight scenes may have been ingeniously conceived, they’re robbed of all momentum by the hack job editing.

But let’s get back to the basic mash-up conceit. It goes without saying that the original story was hardly written with post-apocalyptic zombie warfare in mind, so of course the filmmakers are going to chafe against the source material in some prominent ways. The big one concerns societal expectations of women, as the polite and submissive female standard was an indispensable part of the story. And it flat-out does not work in this picture. The Lady Catherine de Bourgh has gained a massive reputation as the most wealthy and feared badass in the whole country, and any other woman who studies martial arts and warfare is a pariah? In a time when every living soul is at war with the undead? What kind of sense does that make?!

To be fair, I could almost understand the emphasis on marriage and childbirth if it was part of the effort to repopulate the world and birth more soldiers against the undead. But the film stops just short of making that connection. And even if it did, that still wouldn’t explain the arranged marriages between cousins or the obsession with marrying into a higher class (both inescapable holdovers from Jane Austen, sadly).

Worst of all, there’s the matter of pacing. Even if this is only an adaptation of an adaptation, the filmmakers still had to tell the story of “Pride and Prejudice” in 110 minutes. Given all the convoluted interpersonal maneuverings and antiquated social norms of the source text, compressing it into so short a time is no easy feat (just look at the 2005 attempt). You’d think things might be easier in the mash-up, since the proceedings could be sped up by way of zombie attacks or character deaths. Instead, it adds another layer of complications as the movie now has to establish its own rules for the zombie plague and how this world came to be.

The end result is a film overcrowded with exposition, with sequences weighed down by explanations of who’s who and what’s going on. What makes it even worse is that the movie has been inexplicably padded with recurring plotlines that go absolutely nowhere. The “four horsemen” are a prominent example, ditto for the annoying and useless feud between the Chinese and Japanese schools of martial arts.

But any points I take away for the pacing, I have to give right back for the tone. This movie had a tremendously difficult line to walk, and this movie skillfully avoids the mistake that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter made in taking itself too seriously. We get just enough exposition to flesh out the world and suspend disbelief, yet these details are absurd in just such a way that it enhances the overall sense of fun. And if anything seems ridiculous, the film makes no apology for it.

The movie nails the tone right out of the gate, as the Bennet sisters sit in a circle and clean their guns. They act with cool proficiency in an atmosphere more akin to a tea party, and the contrast is nothing short of sublime. And then they prepare for a ball by helping each other into their dresses and putting their concealed knives in place. It’s the perfect blend of awesome and sexy and freaking hilarious in all the right ways. And the same goes for the rest of the film.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was never going to be a perfect movie. And it was never going to be a faithful or even respectful adaptation of the Jane Austen novel (I seriously doubt that any attempt will ever be able to top the 1995 BBC rendition). The question was always going to be whether this movie justified its own existence. Whether it could play into its bizarre premise in such a way that it might be fun to watch, and maybe give us some kick-ass female lead characters in the bargain. Despite some uneven moments and a runtime that’s still padded at 110 minutes, I’d say it absolutely clears that bar. It’s a pretty low bar, but still.

It’s not worth paying full price for, but I’d heartily recommend a viewing on second-run or DVD.

For more Movie Curiosities, check out my blog. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter.