United States/United Kingdom. Directed by Burr Steers, 2016. Starring Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Boothe, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Lena Headey, Suki Waterhouse. 108 minutes.
The inevitable film version of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 cult novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies finally sees the light of day at the hands of writer/director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down). Jane Austen’s seminal tale of marriage and manners plays out against a Victorian Britain plagued by brain-eating undead, with Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James, Downton Abbey) leading a quintet of ninja sisters and Col. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley, Control) serving the Royal Army “at large” by rooting out zombie infestations before they spread.
Like most notable zombie fiction, PPZ largely uses the undead as an environmental hazard, an important fact of life for the characters but not the source of the main conflict. As in Austen, the major narrative arc follows the headstrong Elizabeth and the aloof Darcy as they gradually fall in love despite making a series of bad impressions on each other. The film reinterprets Austen’s battles of words as literal, impeccably-choreographed battles.
While Steers often develops his themes without subtlety (for example, when Elizabeth’s sister Jane predicts the former would “relinquish her sword for a ring” from “the right man,” she retorts, “The right man wouldn’t ask me to”), the film does contain some measure of wit, particularly in the form of supporting characters such as the vain and obsequious Parson Collins (Matt Smith, the eleventh Doctor Who, in a bravura performance) and the legendary swordswoman Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey of Game of Thrones, sporting a strangely alluring eyepatch). The historical setting and period dialog brings out the best in the ensemble, which also features Douglas Booth, Bella Heathcote, Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire), and Charles Dance (GoT again).
Other aspects of the production aren’t as strong. Despite its jump-scares and plentiful gore, the film lacks the conviction necessary to work as a horror story; by pulling a crucial early punch, Steers indicates that he has no intention of killing any of the major characters. When he focuses on invincible protagonists, throngs of nameless cannon-fodder extras, and massive battle sequences, PPZ feels more like a modern superhero movie (complete with mid-credit stinger) than anything else. Unfortunately, the editing and poor digital effects make action scenes look like they belong in a video game.
Similarly, the plot weakens when it emerges from its drawing rooms and cellars. The film fails to clearly convey how zombies and their plague operate in its fictional universe, the script mishandles an important and unusual subplot that develops across the second act, and the audience should figure out the big climactic twist at least half an hour before it shocks Elizabeth.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is great fun when its characters spar with words and weapons, but not so much when it strays from Austen’s original template. The novelty of combining classic romance fiction with horror elements can only carry the film so far, and the other elements can’t make up the rest of the distance.