The pace of modern culture is almost unrelentingly swift. The lifecycle of an average piece of entertainment is not blessed with a half-life of more than a few months. As such it’s no surprise that Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, writer and director Burr Steers’ adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 novel of Jane Austen genre mashup feels totally dead on arrival in 2016.
Arriving in theaters nearly seven years after its source material’s rather improbable, zeitgeist-milking success, the resulting film is a curiously inert affair. Grahame-Smith’s original novel initially captured attentions with its logline-ready title—something with all the cleverness of a writing prompt sourced from Reddit—but it was the book’s faithful reinterpretation of Austen’s prose and clever blending of disparate genres which made it a runaway success. It is Steers’ film’s great failing then that it doesn’t trust its audience’s intelligence enough to allow for a straightforward adaptation. The plot comes muddied with an unnecessarily complicated backstory, meted out over a whimsical opening credit sequence only to disappear until the end of the film.
The main thrust of the picture is right there in the title, juxtaposing the romantic entanglements of the five Bennet daughters in 1800s England with that of a countrywide zombie outbreak. Though we are told often of the Bennet girls’ fighting prowess against the undead, more time is spent in fisticuffs with the living, whether sparring for practice or due to some aforementioned romantic entanglement. Since much of the dialogue that appears is unchanged from the Austen original, these fighting scenes feel like a manic underlining of otherwise emotionally electric affairs. Particularly in the case of the moment when Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) rebuffs the ill-conceived marriage proposal by Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), where the rich dialogue gets wrongly pushed aside in favor of some quick cut, sexualized violence between the pair. In the end one can’t help but find that all of the action in the film is female empowerment seen through a distinctly male gaze.
As far as filmic versions of Jane Austen’s most popular work, this is an overly clean and weightless entry into the canon, and as far as zombie films go, it’s surprisingly leaden and bloodless. James (Downton Abbey) acquits herself reasonably well as Elizabeth, but the rest of the cast feel disjoint. Her relationship with Riley’s Darcy is entirely without danger on account of the film’s pacing, making any romantic developments feel unearned. In the de facto villain role, because hordes of mindless undead are apparently not enough, Jack Huston’s George Wickham is little more than a flesh and blood Gaston from Disney’s Beauty And The Beast. Doctor Who’s Matt Smith is initially a treat as Parson Collins but his welcome is quickly worn out. As well one can’t help but feel that Game Of Thrones’ Lena Headey, here playing Lady Catherine Debourgh as a vicious warrior, and Charles Dance, as Mr. Bennet, would have been better off spending their hiatus from that show elsewhere.
The film’s lack of purchase is mostly due to Steers’ script refusing to commit in either of its approaches and tones. Equally, the direction of the picture is at best workmanlike in approach, resulting in a paucity of visually striking moments in a film which should be otherwise crawling with them.
Though the real problem seems to come from the sluggish timing of the film’s production and release. If anything our world is in a much different place than when the original book was written and its premise, once novel, has withered on the vine. America’s cultural pendulum has swung in the opposite direction and as such the film serves to reduce a once fresh take on genre fiction, introducing it into a pop culture landscape so thoroughly saturated with zombie properties that there have already been numerous zombie-centric romantic comedies before it. In an era of increasingly fickle tastes the film version lands with the same dull impact as Chris Columbus’ much-too-late adaptation of Rent did in 2005.
In the end there isn’t much that could have saved the picture from being something of an also-ran. With Joe Wright’s masterful 2005 adaptation, audiences have likely seen the best version of Pride And Prejudice to grace the cinema to date, and we are surely in the golden age of zombie-related entertainments. There was much promise to the idea of the film but it mostly seems lost in execution. What audiences have now is at best a diverting trifle. Perhaps it was a fool’s errand translating it to screen, as Austen’s own words attest, “after all there is no enjoyment like reading.”
Official trailer for the film below.