Directed by Burr Steer.
2016. Rated PG-13, 108 minutes.
I get it. Jane Austen is the greatest everything. She is a literary treasure and one of the first to push the virtues of feminism. I appreciate the fact. I just don't like her books. In college I was tasked with reading both "Sense and Sensibility" and "Pride and Prejudice." That was possibly the longest month of my entire life. I could feel the life draining from my soul as I read page after page of vaguely romantic, stodgy 18th century British prose. This, coming from a guy who loves Shakespeare, no less. With Austen, it just felt like it was going nowhere and would never end. In fact, I'm pretty sure someone kept adding pages to the end of the books I was reading because they just seemed to be get longer. After finally finishing the novels, we watched a movie based "Sense and Sensibility." I forget which film version we saw. It doesn't really matter. The experience wasn't any better. Every day during this entire misadventure I want to choke out my professor. And I really liked him, otherwise. Happily, I blocked out the details of this particularly boring part of my life and couldn't tell you what either book was about. Instead, I cling resolutely to oath to never read either of them again, nor pick up any of her other books. Me watching any of the movies based on her work is not quite nil, but pretty close.
My unwillingness to venture back into Austen's canon hasn't changed. What has changed is that I'm very willing to sit through a movie that uses her work as inspiration, so long as it clearly appeals to my...sense and sensibilities. Sorry, I couldn't help myself. Anyhoo, this is the case with director Burr Steers's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It is based on the novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith. He started with Austen's original text, crediting her as a co-author. From there, he inserted and developed a plot based on zombies. After seeing the film, I wish I had read the book. Where was this when I was in college?
The film finds England well into a zombie apocalypse. However, a few aristocrats have locked themselves in their (heavily) gated community and carry on with life, as usual. This means Elizabeth Bennet (James) and her sisters Jane (Heathcote), Kitty (Waterhouse), Lydia (Bamber), and Mary (Brady) are still dealing with pressure from their mom (Phillips) to marry a wealthy suitor. Dad (Dance) is a bit more practical. He made sure they all attended the Shaolin Temple in China where they were trained in martial arts. Yup, that's what I said. Sure enough, zombies have infiltrated this little section of the world. Mind you, some of these zombies can still pass for human. In any event, this leads to our heroines, especially Elizabeth, join forces with respected zombie killer Colonel Darcy (Riley) to fight off hordes of the living dead.
Everything about this movie is just gleefully weird. The title tells us as much, but doesn't deliver the whole story. That the sisters are all trained in kung fu, adds a big piece to the puzzle. It ensures our ladies are not just damsels in distress and gives us some very nice action sequences. It also gives us wonderful scenes like the one where the girls are playfully sparring with each other while discussing the various men in their lives. There is also the absolutely brilliant fly-catching scene. Making all of this fit snugly within the world created by Austen simply sounds bizarre, and is even that in execution, but works perfectly. Helping the film work is a cast that plays it totally straight. They never let on that this is all a ruse. And that's exactly how it should be. They're immersed in this world, so nothing about it should seem ridiculous, as it does to us. The juxtaposition of their obliviousness with our knowingness works heavily in the film's favor.
For some, the cast, at least the good guys, being so serious might not quite work for everyone. They may see it as taking itself too seriously. This is the same malady which plagued 2012's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. That film seemed hellbent on injecting bits of real history and trying to play down its vampires as much as possible. We have a similar issue, here. Here, it's the insistence on keeping as much as of Austen's novel intact. I would contend this is what makes it tick. Others might not be able to get beyond the parts of the story that have nothing to do with zombies. These people may not get the humor that courses through the veins of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, rendering it an odd, but not necessarily entertaining affair.
Indeed, those who dig the humor are likely a small lot, compared to, say, the latest Will Ferrell or Melissa McCarthy movie. This, plus the unnecessarily long title, I suspect, are why this film had such a hard time finding its audience while in theaters. I'm fairly certain, the average Jane Austen fan looks down upon zombie flicks and might view this as an affront to her legacy. Those who aren't Austen fans may not be aware enough of who she is to understand the point, especially in a world infested with hordes of zombies through every form of media through which we consume video. I'd say give it a chance, you'll be pleasantly surprised. I was. But I'm still not going to read any Jane Austen. Ever.