I rolled my eyes when I first heard years ago that Hollywood was adapting Seth Grahame-Smith’s zombie mash-up of Jane Austen’s classic novel. I rolled my eyes back to centre when I found out Natalie Portman was going to play the lead role, and then I completely forgot about it as the film steered off into production hell.
Then out of nowhere, the film was done. Portman is now an Oscar winner (Black Swan, 2011) and only a producer on the film, with rising star Lily James replacing her as heroine Elizabeth Bennet. I still wasn’t too interested in the film, though I was willing to give it more of a chance because I was one of the six people in the world who actually liked a similar film — at least conceptually — Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (which came out in 2012). Still, I thought the book was a gimmicky idea and the film was going to be the same.
Now that I’ve watched it, I can say that my reservations about it being gimmicky were largely misplaced. Grahame-Smith’s book basically took the original Pride and Prejudice (which is no longer protected by copyright) and added his own bits and pieces (pun intended) about zombies, so the basic structure of Austen’s novel is still there. The film version, accordingly, is the same. You still have the core plot and the same characters. The main difference is that they now live in a world of zombies and the Bennet family and the lovely Mr Darcy are all kick-ass zombie killers.
It sounds stupid and it is, though credit to director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) for finding the right tone — one that doesn’t take itself very seriously but also controlled enough so that it doesn’t spiral into a complete farce. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is more or less what you’d expect — lots of crazy zombie killing action and some light horror-comedy — except it’s surprisingly well-executed enough to not overdo it, so you don’t get tired of the zombie angle quickly or get bored by the period drama romance at the heart of the story.
The film survives from a disastrous collapse because they actually cast solid dramatic actors across the board. Lily James is excellent as Elizabeth Bennet, while Sam Riley (On the Road) makes a decent Mr Darcy. Throw in the likes of Jack Huston and Lena Headey, as well as young up-and-comers like Aussie Bella Heathcote and Douglas Booth (Noah), and you have yourself a nice ensemble cast who can carry their dramatic scenes well enough when there is no carnage on screen. The standout, however, has to be Dr Who himself, Matt Smith, who plays a hilarious version of Mr Collins.
The problem with P&P&Z is that it doesn’t do any particular thing well. It’s got comedy, but it’s more likely to put a brief smile on your face than elicit genuine laughs. It’s got horror, but there’s nothing that will make your hairs stand, give you the chills or make you jump in your seat. It’s got drama and romance, but if you wanted to watch that you’d just watch any of the many other P&P adaptations out there. And it’s got action, but it’s neither very stylish and exciting (like say Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), nor is it very witty and creative (like say Shaun of the Dead).
So what we end up with is a surprisingly acceptable movie that’s enjoyable enough for killing 108 minutes of your spare time, but with no elements you haven’t already seen — and done better — in other genre films. It’s neither the total disaster I thought it might be nor the kind of genre-bending fun thrill ride it could have been.
3 stars out of 5