By: Akram Shaban
Remember that 2005 Pride and Prejudice adaptation with Keira Knightley and Rosamund Pike? You probably do, it was received quite well. Well, take that movie, insert some zombies, and voila, you have Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (we’ll abbreviate it as PPZ). Written and directed by Burr Steers, the parody adaptation of the classic Jane Austen novel stars Lily James as warrior Elizabeth Bennet, along with her four sword-wielding sisters Jane (Bella Heathcote), Kitty (Suki Waterhouse), Lydia (Ellie Bamber), and Mary (Millie Brady). Sam Riley is General Darcy, and Douglas Booth is Mr. Bingley. Of course, who can forget Lena Headey (actually I can, more on that below), Neil Patri…- I mean Matt Smith as Mr. Collins, and Charles Dance as Mr. Bennet.
Going into this movie, I thought it was going to be mindless zombie slaying fun. I expected the script to be mediocre, and to write a disapproving review in the end. I had good reason, I guess. Jane Austen’s writing style is difficult to live up to, and while I have not read the parody novel that inspired the film, I was curious to see how the director would balance the added zombie theme with the original story without diverging too much. I anticipated one of two outcomes; either divert only a little or too much, putting my money on the latter. I’m only partially pleased to say I was wrong.
First of all, I cannot go far without mentioning the script. It exceeded my expectations and beyond. Thinking back on it, I wonder why my expectations were low to begin with. It takes a special kind of comedy writer to want to parody something like Pride and Prejudice, at least, someone who knows how to and what to write. Since the movie remained true to the original story, all a good writer needed to do was figure out how to add zombies into the mix, trying his or her best to emulate the writing style. On those grounds, I must say the film succeeded, managing to sound intelligent while zombies are trying to eat its characters brains.
There are two factors (as with any movie) that inform the execution of the zombie theme: quality and quantity. While Steers did the right thing and avoided straying too far from the story, I feel like he held back a bit too much. People appreciate it when a director is careful about being excessive. But occasionally, a movie holds back so much that the rest of it begins to seem excessive. In this case, there was too little zombie slaying, at times making you feel like the rest of the story is dragging along. Now I would have forgiven this lack of quantity easily if the quality had redeemed it. I don’t watch many zombie movies, I avoid them any chance I get. Why may you ask? Because they’ve become the same. I want to purge my mind of the clichés that we’ve grown to be bored of. There were so many of those moments in PPZ that you could easily identify ones that were noticeably reused (headshot scenes anyone?). However, despite these complaints, I must admit I still enjoyed the zombie aspects because of how rarely I view films from this genre.
If there is anything that was truly lacking, however, it would be precious screentime for some of the bigger actors. I mentioned above that Lena Headey was not so memorable. That is because her presence was quite underwhelming. She was set up to be this badass legendary female fighter who slayed monsters and what not. I wanted to see her kick zombie behinds! Alas, all we received was a slightly comical version of Cersei Lannister without any of the politicking that made Headey’s Game of Thrones character so captivating. At least, in Game of Thrones she is colder than Donald Trump’s heart; in PPZ, she came off as nothing more than a joke, with no scenes that could be considered memorable or awe inspiring.
Strangely enough, some of the actors look similar to the cast of the 2005 adaptation of the novel. While the film was darker in tone, there are many parallels that could be drawn between the two. One is the casting choice. I am mostly referring to Lily James and Keira Knightley from the original. Whenever James appeared on screen, I thought of how similar they looked, especially in the way they presented their characters’ mannerisms. I don’t very much doubt that the resemblance was an intentional choice. However, it does reinforce my belief that much of the film’s direction was inspired by the 2005 version. This is not necessarily a critique, but something interesting to think about.
The performances were very good. Matt Smith did his “thing” and played a goofball. If he had been replaced by Neil Patrick Harris halfway through, I probably would not have noticed. Not because they look similar (although they do), but because of how they play their characters.
I had a conversation the other day about the difference between playing a character and being the character. I would say that Sam Riley fits the bill for being zombie killing Mr. Darcy. He was as emotionless as the undead, to paraphrase Elizabeth but that can be considered a strength, as his emotionlessness(?) brought a certain gravitas to the proceedings.
Just as a side note, in case you do watch the movie, pay attention to the, umm, chest areas of certain female characters. Don’t worry, the film will make that very easy for you, as it explicitly and unapologetically zooms in at certain points, bringing your attention to, you know, the prominent areas. My fellow Film Lawyers and I discussed this phenomenon in great detail… for analytical purposes of course! I came to the conclusion that Steers was simply parodying the habit of period films of constantly accentuating women’s cleavage. I really hope people notice that too, more so for the parody aspect than anything else. Go watch Titanic and you’ll see what I mean. Most period films seem to follow that strange rule. I have no complaints, I’m just glad someone took note of it and decided to parody this strange convention.
Moving on, the cinematography is something to look forward to. The scenes where the sisters are dressing up with their fancy gowns, followed by them equipping blades and staffs, are a fine treat. It’s juxtaposition done right, with the tenderness of femininity becoming the backdrop to the ruggedness of violence.
In addition to entertaining you, those scenes have a point to prove. There are all sorts of critiques of Jane Austen and her portrayal of class and society. Some of it involved the depiction of women as dependent people, whose lives are determined by the status of their husbands. Some people abhor the thought of a woman choosing that lifestyle (some people abhor the thought of a woman making choices). But that conclusion may be based on incomplete assumptions. Being personally independent is not incompatible with financial dependence. That’s what I believe the movie aims to prove. Instead of criticizing some women for choosing to be financially dependent on their spouse, suspend that judgment, and embrace the idea that there is more to being a person (a human being really) than how you provide for yourself or who provides for you. Women are still capable of doing badass things, and will do those things if they choose to. Of course, that’s after they’ve overcome their pride and prejudice fueled reservations about the person they’ll grow to love over time (and after some zombie genocide).
Overall, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a well-executed attempt at parodying a classic work. Given how difficult it is to do that, and taking into consideration the glaring shortcomings, I grant this film a high B- (7.5/10). I can’t wait for the sequel (seriously, there are three of those books)!