The promise of a title like Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is both blatant and implied. On the surface, you know you'll get Jane Austen's classic novel of English literature with the added bonus of zombie mayhem. But on another level, you're promised a satirical subversion of the source material that also holds up as a story in its own right. Seth Grahame-Smith's novel performed this difficult balancing act quite well, even creating a niche subgenre of "creatures & classics" stories. Shambling into theatres several years and countless cast and crew changes later, the film version only occasionally delivers the mix of drawing room drama, zombie splatter, and witty repartee that made the novel so appealing.
Just as in Austen's original, the focus is on the sisters of the Bennett family, primarily the headstrong and relatively progressive Elizabeth (Lily James). England has for some time been crawling with zombies, and as a result, all the sisters have been trained in the deadly arts as well as in more traditionally feminine pursuits. In the middle of defending her home and lands from the undead, Elizabeth crosses paths with the brusque and rough zombie hunter Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), and it's love/hate at first sight. Bosoms are heaved, brittle bon mots are hurled, and occasionally a zombie head gets blown to pieces like a ripe watermelon.
For a movie that is supposed to be both funny and scary, P&P&Z is consistently neither. It has moments here and there, mostly in the film's first half, but somewhere along the way the film starts lurching about like one of those dreadfully impolite zombies. Most of this is the fault of writer/director Burr Steers, who lacks the definitive vision or authoritative style that the material requires. The film often feels unfocused, with horribly uneven pacing, and a feeling of blunt, studio-mandated editing and reshooting hangs heavy in the air.
It doesn't start out that way, though. Much like the zombies in the narrative, who maintain their cognitive abilities and manners (if not their flesh) until they've consumed human brains, the film starts out with great promise then slowly decomposes until the end credits stomp it in the head. Steers does do a lot right in the first act, perfectly mimicking the tonal palette of a typical piece of Miramax Oscar-bait, which is juxtaposed by scenes of the Bennett girls cleaning their pistols or concealing weapons under their ball gowns. The first action sequence is charmingly stone-faced, hypnotic in its self-aware ridiculousness. Some of the dialogue even seems to hint at a bit of fourth wall-breaking, and the film hews very closely to the book's plot.
However, around the halfway point, everything starts to slowly break down. Important points from the book are dropped in favor of a new, uninspired, action-movie subplot that feels woefully out of place and overtakes all of the character interactions that inform the original story. The final act feels like it was taken from a rushed, cutrate mockbuster version of the film, and the actors seem to be as confused as the audience, if not more so.
A big problem the film has is that important plot points come up out of nowhere and vanish just as quickly. At first, this seems intentional. The focus is so heavily on Elizabeth that anything not directly concerning her happens behind the scenes. The plot twists seem sudden and surprising because they are to Elizabeth. Had Steers kept that going, a lot of the film's pacing and flow issues could have been forgiven.
Alas, the third act just about forgets that Elizabeth was ever there in the first place, which is a shame because Lily James is perfect in the role. Like her turn as the title character in Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella, she gives a performance that is perhaps more dedicated and dynamic than the material would otherwise suggest or require. Her Elizabeth practices a restrained kind of rebellion, only breaking her emotional defenses when around Mr. Darcy, who here is her equal in wit and in combat. A war of words between the two turns into a no-holds-barred, expertly-choreographed skirmish with actual weapons, and it's easily the best and most humorous scene in the film. Sam Riley's Darcy is itself a rather interesting take on the character. Riley imbues Darcy with enough humanity to hint at the person inside his armed and armored exterior while also grounding and deflating the romantic aura usually attributed to the character. He's not a swoon-worthy, Colin Firth-style Darcy, and just like Elizabeth, it takes the audience a while to warm up to him and understand his charm.
The rest of the cast is mostly forgettable, however, with only Bella Heathcote's Jane Bennett and Douglas Booth's Mr. Bingley standing out, primarily because they both happen to be prettier than everybody else. Charles Danse barely makes a presence as Mr. Bennett, and Lena Headey is criminally wasted as Darcy's warrior-queen aunt Lady Catherine, whose role in the film is drastically reduced from the book. You don't give Cersei Lannister an eye patch and a katana just so she can sit around throwing shade over tea. When she's on screen, Headey is effortlessly captivating, but for the vast majority of the film's runtime, she's relegated to the background.
At least Matt Smith is there as the foppish, effete Mr. Collins to distract us from all that. Smith throws himself into the role with giddy abandon, a spring in his step, and not an ounce of shame. In fact, had the film followed Smith's example, it could have been so much better. He's one of the few consistently funny jokes in a wildly inconsistent black comedy, and he only serves to highlight the broad-sword of a satire that should have made it to the screen. Much like the unfortunate undead that populate its landscape, this film might be walking and talking just fine, but it's really only half-alive.
FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C