PLOT: Jane Austen's legendary novel focusing on the uneasy romance that blooms between lively Elizabeth Bennet and the cavalier Mr. Darcy is turned upside down by the addition of a ceaseless zombie plague that threatens to ravage the countryside. Thankfully, both Liz and Darcy are well-trained in the art of zombie disposal.
REVIEW: Even in the best case scenario, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES would be extremely difficult to get right. The melding of such very different genres - Jane Austen melodrama and apocalyptic zombie bash - would give even the most astute director some trouble, as proven by the many helmers who came and went on the project (David O. Russell, Mike White, Craig Gillespie to name a few). So it's none too surprising that Burr Steers - best known for Zac Efron vehicles like 17 AGAIN and CHARLIE ST. CLOUD - has not really cracked this undead period piece, as the chips were already stacked against him. The material may have worked on the printed page (it's based on Seth Grahame-Smith's novel), but the transition to the screen is bumpy, to say the least. After so many years of trying to get the movie adaptation off the ground, did anyone ever wonder if it should get off the ground?
The main problem is this: I'm not sure who PP&Z was made for. It's certainly not horror movie fans; even the most patient of the lot will find Steers' movie lacking on the gore, horror, and mayhem fronts. It's not for Jane Austen fans, because while Steers sometimes captures a little bit of the novel's essence, we've seen many, better movies already generated from this material. I don't think the casual moviegoer will dance to this flick's unwieldy tune, either. Is it for fans of both Jane Austen and horror movies? Perhaps, but Steers does not allow for the two to mesh comfortably; the idea of a zombie outbreak taking place alongside a proper story of manners in 19th century England is amusing, but here they two distinct genres never feel like they belong together. Like an uneasy arranged marriage, the two come together awkwardly, clumsily, and both know it's never going to work out.
It's Victorian England, and a ravenous plague has spread across the country; it's commonly accepted now that you might see zombies roaming about, some of them still articulate (it takes a while for the virus to fully apprehend your brain), some of them full-bore gnashing monsters. Plenty of proper ladies and gentlemen are trained to do battle with the undead; one such lass is Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James), one of five daughters of Mr. Bennett (Charles Dance) who sees to it that his girls are well equipped to handle themselves against the advancing horde. When they're not training intensely, the girls are still being groomed for marriage, and the arrival of the wealthy and charming Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) prompts Mr. and Mrs. Bennett to assemble their daughters for Bingley's picking. Elizabeth, independent-minded and unique, is slightly put off by such formalities, but Bingley's accomplished zombie-killing friend Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) quickly catches her eye... although the gentleman is too snobby and pompous to give her much of a chance, despite the fact they're clearly meant for one another.
Yes, folks, this is zombie movie, but PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES focuses much of its time on the P&P part, attempting gamely but shakily to get Austen's sophisticated atmosphere and dialogue just right while the zombie stuff lumbers weirdly in the background. Every now and again we'll have a blasted-off head or undead attack, but Steers isn't a wiz in the action department, and most of these scenes come off as rushed and poorly-shot. (Very dark and unfocused, most of the "horror" sequences are.) It's as if the movie is willfully pushing away the only reason it exists, which is to introduce this ghoulish subgenre comically into an otherwise stately story of romance and social stature. As a result, neither genre is adequately served.
If Steers has done one thing well, it's in the casting department. Lily James is simply lovely - in every sense of the word - as the strong but vulnerable Elizabeth. She's a terrific match for Austen's famous creation. Sam Riley exudes the necessary combination of arrogance and hidden congeniality for Mr. Darcy, while Game of Thrones vets Charles Dance and Lena Headey (used all too sparingly as a noblewoman and former zombie slayer) are always welcome, especially when they can lend some class to an affair like this. Jack Huston is charismatic as Elizabeth's mysterious potential love interest Mr. Wickham, but his subplot is poorly conceived and generally confusing. The real scene stealer is ex-Dr. Who Matt Smith as a prissy clergyman who arrives to potentially marry one of the Bennet girls. Smith almost seems like he's in a different movie altogether, camping it up heartily, but he's a welcome breath of fresh air in contrast to the stuffy goings-on around him. (In fact, the level Smith is on might have been the right level for the movie as a whole.)
With all its faults checked off, it's still worth noting that PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES isn't terrible; it isn't worthy of scorn or hatred. It just doesn't work. You can't blame the movie for existing because its creators didn't know how to give it real life; it's just an odd curio, a trifle meant to be thought about only briefly before you move on.