Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, based on the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, slides the undead into 19th century England, arming the Bennett sisters against the writhing hordes of zombies taking over the countryside. Their fighting skills are as impressive as their personal fortunes are poor and it’s in this conflict that Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s love story begins. The film was hilarious and left me eager to talk about it–just not in the ways the creators may have expected.
Any Pride & Prejudice adaptation requires an Elizabeth Bennett that can both ground the narrative and drive it forward, because we all know that’s not going to come from Darcy. Lily James is a decent Lizzie, her fierceness and cynicism made more obvious than Keira Knightley’s or Jennifer Ehle’s. She is quicker to snap and even quicker to draw her sword: many of her scenes feature a weapon of some sort in her hand. There’s a bit more time spent on showing us Lizzie’s inner thoughts and personality, but those things don’t really add much to the story. It’s not hard to improve upon a character who’s already fully formed and interesting– you just shade her in a little more deeply.
Her sisters are less recognizable. It wasn’t until the Netherfield ball that I could figure out who Jane was, and I gave up trying to remember which was Lydia and which was Kitty and which was Mary very quickly after that. They don’t affect the film so much as they just exist in it, which was probably unavoidable considering how much director Burr Steers tries to cram in.
In early promotion of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Vox declared that the film was “poised to put an awesome feminist spin on Austen’s classic work.” And yes, it was gratifying to see Lizzie and her sisters exacting swift demises upon their zombie neighbours and countrymen. It was less satisfying to see the camera slowly panning up their bodies as they armed themselves with knives, or the odd focus on exposing Lily James’ breasts in several scenes. There was a ribbing, winking sense of “hey dudes, legs and boobs, am I right?” that was off-putting to say the least.
Their fighting skills were attributed to time and training in China, as opposed to the aristocratic choice of Japan for learning the “deadly arts.” Why China and Japan? We’re never told, so it’s difficult for me not to take it as a casually racist choice. It wouldn’t be the first instance in the film, as a storyboard recounting tells us that the zombie plague was one of the things brought back to Britain after colonizing other countries. It’s hard to dismiss how Lizzie and her sisters fight in the style of wu shu, and ladies and lords speak Japanese, but not a single person of colour makes an appearance and the zombies can be blamed on countries that Britain invaded. They’re the kind of worldbuilding choices that don’t give enough credit to the characters that live them or the audience that has to take them in.
The zombies themselves are passable, and not truly frightening. Sure, they led to some fun action sequences, but I was never that worried about the lives of the main characters (though I must warn for two scenes in the first half of the film that contained gunshots so loud, our audience physically recoiled in their seats). Likewise, Bingley and his sisters are only there for a few crucial scenes, and Jane and Bingley’s romance is sped up so much that I’m still not sure what it is they see in each other. Georgiana Darcy is barely a footnote, and Lizzie’s friend Charlotte is shoehorned into the plotline with Collins. It’s enough, Steers seems to say, that we already know the original story, and that we know who will end up together.
The only real change that I enjoyed was Mr. Collins, played to perfection by Matt Smith. I don’t remember ever laughing so hard and genuinely looking forward to scenes with Mr. Collins in any adaptation, but Smith manages to be delightful in every single one. He commits to the role, game for playing up Collins’ need to be praised as well as his social awkwardness, without laughing at the character himself. His performance was a stark contrast to Wickham, played by Jack Huston, who was less of a talented scammer than a smarmy, whiny Gaston. Wickham’s arc was the least interesting to me in this new interpretation, and his connection to Lydia is thrown in at the last minute, almost as if Steers realized he’d forgotten a key part of the original novel’s climax.
And so we come to Darcy, who opens the film with a scene that tries to set a specific, horrifying tone to the story. That tone doesn’t last, but it does establish actor Sam Riley in a different movie than the one he stars in. PPZ never really manages to commit to being campy or terrifying or romantic, instead pursuing all three, to varying degrees of success. Sam Riley Batman-rasps his way through both military commands and Austen’s romantic dialogue, bringing me to laughter more than a few times. Darcy the Colonel is far more believable than Darcy the Broody Romantic Hero, and Riley seems to know it too. He feels more natural fighting the undead than he does in a drawing room, sipping tea and playing cards. The most emotion I felt for the Lizzie/Darcy romance came after the inevitable confession–not during–when neither Lizzie nor Darcy needed to pretend to feel anything other than loathing for each other. Lily James brings out Lizzie’s frustration with her world and society’s expectations for her, and Riley answers her with Darcy’s own pent-up dissatisfaction. I didn’t see them as a couple so much as people who needed a kindred soul in their lives.
Does that make for a satisfying two-hour film? I wouldn’t be surprised by mixed reviews, because PPZ is entertaining when it gives itself room to breathe. But those moments are often quick to pass, as another zombie comes along to muddle an already-complex and gratifying story of interpersonal relationships.