Brains and blood can’t overshadow classic love story

By Tim Rosenberger

You need to ask yourself one important question if you’re thinking about seeing “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” the newest film by director/writer Burr Steers that opened on Feb. 5. Do you like or even care about Jane Austen’s classic 1813 story, “Pride and Prejudice?” If your answer is a resounding “no” or an “absolutely not,” you may have trouble wading through this film. The movie is definitely good but requires a certain amount of love for the original source material to enjoy it.

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is based on a 2009 novel that author Seth Grahame-Smith created by writing zombie scenes and bits of plot into Austen’s novel. It’s practically a co-authorship, although a very strange one.

This film actually follows most of the original story’s major beats, with whole scenes and lines of dialogue taken directly from Austen. The only big difference are the zombie additions.

In 19th century, zombie-invested England, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (Charles Dance and Sally Phillips) have trained their five daughters to be combat specialists. Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) is more interested in being a good fighter than getting married, much to the annoyance of her mother, and initially takes no interest in the mysterious Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley).

The strong-minded and capable Elizabeth catches Darcy’s eye, but Elizabeth finds the wealthy Darcy, an expert zombie killer, abrasive and cruel. As the zombie war comes to a head, however, romance may be in Elizabeth’s future after all and there may be more to Darcy than meets the eye.

Elizabeth (Lily James) and her sister Jane (Bella Heathcote) arms themselves for a day out in a very different 19th century England.
From right to left: Elizabeth (Lily James) and her sister Jane (Bella Heathcote) arm themselves for a day out in a very different 19th century England. (Jay Maidment/CTMG, Inc., photo courtesy of Sony Pictures).

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” makes a smart choice when it chooses to treat the love story and all the character relationships sincerely. There is no winking at the camera. As far as the cast is concerned, this is a straight dramatic romance that just so happens to have zombies seamlessly woven into it.

When you get right down to it, the zombies aren’t even that important. They do effect the plot and a number of scenes involve guns, swords and zombie violence. The action never goes on that long, though, and our focus is quickly brought back to our characters. Those of us who enjoy the Austen romance may or may not be bothered by this, but those coming for the zombies may be disappointed, especially in the mostly zombie-light first half.

Polished performances make this a great retelling of a classic love story, though Darcy takes too long to show his better qualities, which are less endearing than they could be and he comes off a bit unlikable. Therefore, his love for Elizabeth comes slightly out of left field and doesn’t seem entirely genuine. We’re not rooting for the relationship as much as the movie wants.

Left to right: Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley) acting less than pleasant to a priest, Mr. Collins (Matt Smith), while Elizabeth watches on. ( Jay Maidment/CTMG, Inc., photo courtesy of Sony Pictures).
Left to right: Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley) acts unpleasantly to a priest, Mr. Collins (Matt Smith), while Elizabeth looks on. ( Jay Maidment/CTMG, Inc., photo courtesy of Sony Pictures).

Some viewers have said the story diverges from its Grahame-Smith source material in the movie’s second half. The plot focuses more on the zombies and drifts further away from Austen’s novel, which the 2009 Grahame-Smith story did not.

Book purists may be unhappy, but I found it a fun, if a little unsatisfying, divergence. The film adds material concerning a possible zombie victory and the coming of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which would signal the end of days for humanity.

This subplot is not bothersome at conception but in execution and resolution. The Four Horsemen, while foreshadowed well, don’t really effect the overall plot much and their plotline is never clearly resolved.

The underuse of the horsemen in the story and their plot that doesn’t really go anywhere makes us suspect the film has been structured as the possible start of a franchise. If so, the Four Horsemen storyline is handled poorly, comes off as unneeded and detracts from the film’s otherwise nicely done climax.

Those expecting a non-stop blood bath will be disappointed with “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” If you carry some affection for the Austen book or any of its straight adaptions, however, and you don’t mind a supernatural, action twist, you’ll find something to like in this modern and entertaining literary retelling.

Photo at top: Elizabeth (Lily James) and her sisters fight off a zombie hoard. (Jay Maidment/CTMG, Inc., photo courtesy of Sony Pictures)