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How do you ruin Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” a love story that’s been capturing hearts and imaginations for more than 200 years? Adding zombies isn’t a problem. Draining the life out of this classic rom-com is. And so the latest adaptation “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is a disservice not only to Austen’s work, but also the 2009 Quirk Books hit from which it’s more directly adapted.
In many respects, this is the “Pride and Prejudice” we’ve seen again and again, following the trials and triumphs of the Bennet sisters as they seek love and husbands. Except, this time they must not only avoid the pitfalls of England’s stiffly judgmental 19th century society, but also the deadly maws of brain-craving zombies.
Still, the requirements for a successful “Pride and Prejudice” adaptation are simple. Your leading lady must be an enchanting ingénue who can aptly capture the wit and willfulness of Lizzie Bennet. And “Cinderella” star Lily James does an admirable job, thought the film’s dogged pace races through every emotional beat. Now, your Darcy must be that heady mix of brooding yet alluring. At this Sam Riley fails utterly, favoring the brooding bit entirely.
He has zero spark with James and speaks through his teeth in a low curmudgeonly grumble that never softens even as Darcy confesses his reluctant love. Making matter worse, the styling does him no favors. His haircut is more ghastly than many of the zombie effects. And Riley’s draped in a long leather coat that squeaks as he struts, making him less sexy and more silly. Really, I should be able to stop here, right? If you’ve built a romance on a chemistry that is as engaging as a damp sponge, you’ve failed. But writer-director Burr Steers has other cinematic sins to answer for.
For some bizarre reason, Steers heard the title “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and felt this must be treated as a straight-faced drama. The innate humor of Austen’s original dialogue is rambled through, its zing oft slaughtered. And the deliciously ludicrous mash-up of classic romance and zombie horror is resolutely unrecognized in the film’s tone, making for a grim and infuriatingly boring slog. Just how, how do you hear this concept and not want to make it as gleefully bonkers as possible? How do you read about a roundhouse-kicking, ninja-trouncing, zombie-slaying Lizzie Bennet and think: We better treat this like it’s “The Revenant”?
Beyond that, Austen films are traditionally a spirited celebration of female fantasy, both in romance and fashion. But there’s little warmth or whimsy to be found “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” Its love story is deader than its monsters, and its coloring is slicked with a grey that dulls the appeal of its enviable dresses and makes everyone look vaguely ill. Dim lighting is no help, and at points distracting. I began to wonder if the producers were keeping the budget down by refusing a proper light kit. I can’t think of a studio film that’s ever lit its stars so abysmally. Every single actor is presented with thick grey bags under their eyes. Even the girls look haggard, revealing Steers has no clue what the focus of this property should have been: awesome ass-kicking Austen heroines.
Watching the film, I began to wonder who it was made for. Because it’s some form of Austen, I assumed it’d be for girls. But Steers bungled his casting, filling the romantic roles of Darcy and Wickham (a pouting Jack Huston) with off-putting ingendudes. He sliced down the Bennet’s sisters’ interactions so that their bond is little more than window dressing. And he fails to even give the sisters properly thrilling fight scenes. Instead, he beefs up Darcy and Wickham’s parts, and leers at the Bennets, angling the camera up their long skirts and down their low-cut dresses.
So is “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” meant for boys? Well, they too will be disappointed if they came for action and zombie carnage. While there are a handful of creepy VFX shots, most of the action is as poorly lit as the Bennet girls. Worse, some sequences are so dark you can’t tell what the hell is going on. But that’s likely a sloppy requirement of the film’s PG-13 rating: Not guts, no gory.
On top of all that, the movie lacks the novel’s wicked sense of vengeance. Austen fans who’ve long loathed the “odious” Mr. Collins were able to rejoice in a comeuppance that was deliciously gruesome in the novel. But this “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” wildly rewrites Seth Grahame-Smith’s take, adding in a bloated plotline about “aristocrat zombies” and the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse. If you think these amped-up stakes will make way for grand action sequences, you too will be sorely disappointed.
Steers’s fight scenes are little more than blurs of slicing swords and twirling skirts, with virtually no blood and little impact. The exception is a hand-to-hand combat scene between Lizzie and Darcy, where they battle with wit and weapons. But even this is marred by a sound design that makes the crashing of furniture compete with the couple’s jumbled banter.
“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” does boast a few bright spots, but even these feel an affront to Austen. Matt Smith is a breath of fresh air, and nearly the film’s sole source of humor as the hilariously awkward Mr. Collins. He brings head wiggles and his “Doctor Who” jauntiness to the role, making it the first incarnation of this character I’ve ever rooted for. Which — as much as I adore Smith — is just wrong for the chemistry of Austen’s world. It throws off the whole dynamic in the Bennet household when the family creep is oddly charming.
“Game of Thrones” star Lena Headey brings a new level of intimidation and a glorious dose of diva to the role of the bullying and elitist Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Yet after much teasing about what a mighty warrior she is, this lethal lady is given only a brief moment of combat. If you’ve seen the recently released clip, you’ve seen it all. As if Steers couldn’t bear to make de Bourgh the baddie she’s meant to be, he throws in a galling third act change that robs us of a seemingly assured showdown, beginning a pile-on of nonsensical plotpoints that barrel into an explosive but profoundly stupid finale.
These big changes from the book(s) are clearly constructed to set up a sequel. Characters who were crippled or killed in Grahame-Smith’s novel are preserved so that a more epic undead battle might be rung out of this already dead-on-its-feet would-be film series. But since Steers has so mismanaged every aspect of this curious concept, who could possible be hungry for more?
“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” opens today.