Cast: Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Lena Headey
Director: Burr Steers
Writer: Burr Steers
The film’s gimmick is a simple one. It’s Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice… with zombies. Such a bizarre, outwardly and clearly comical idea requires a clash in tones in order to work. On the one hand the film needs to capture the spirit of Austen’s tale of love, marriage and manners through its setting, characters, plot and use of language. On the other there needs to be a clear satirical element at play where the zombies can be employed for comic effect. It is often the case however that the film instead tries to amplify the action and gore to provide its audience with thrills and tension. While this isn’t necessarily a bad way to go about making this film, the clash does not end up working. Steers seems unsure about how far he ought to take the comedy, action and romance and ends up botching the balance between all three. It is a film that jumps erratically between parody and thriller and I found that the more seriously it tried to take itself, the more my interest waned.
In 19th century England the country has been overrun by zombies and so the practice of combatting them has been ingrained into the culture. Mr. Bennett (Charles Dance) has therefore seen to it that his five daughters have all been trained in the arts of civility, manners and zombie slaying. The Bennett sisters, Elizabeth (Lily James), Jane (Bella Heathcote), Kitty (Suki Waterhouse), Lydia (Ellie Bamber) and Mary (Millie Brady), must face the pressures of marriage and scandal whilst also dispatching of the living dead. While Jane finds an ideal suitor in the form of the dashing Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), Elizabeth is uninterested in the very idea of marriage. Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), an equally adept zombie slayer, is also opposed to the idea of marriage but finds himself reluctantly smitten with Elizabeth upon witnessing her performance in battle. As Elizabeth and Darcy confront their feelings towards each other they discover that England might be in greater danger than they feared.
For me the most enjoyable parts of the film were the more comedic bits. I liked the idea of how marriage proposals and costume balls were still considered important in a world ravaged by apocalypse, I liked how the Bennett sisters would prepare for such occasions by concealing knives in their stockings and garters and I liked how over the top such characters as Lena Headey’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh were. There are however too many instances where the film, in spite of its absurd premise, tries to be taken seriously. Instead of satirising Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship, it tries to convey a genuine romantic bond between them. Instead of utilising the zombies for laughs, it tries to make them intimidating and the combat scenes exciting. A more skilful and clever method might have enabled this approach to work, but it instead comes across as weak. The attempts at creating tension rely more on jump scares than on atmosphere, the combat scenes are shot nonsensically and the character interactions lack substance.
This film is absolutely packed with strong actors who deliver far more than the material warranted. Lily James in particular brings incredible energy to the role of Elizabeth and, between this film, Cinderella, Downton Abbey and War and Peace, looks set to be the new ‘it girl’ of costume dramas. Her performance shows a better blend of comedy and drama than most of her co-stars. Riley, for instance, has made a stronger attempt to play his character for laughs, emphasising Darcy’s stiffness and dourness. Simply put his performance works for the funny parts of the film but not the dramatic parts. The funniest performance by far is provided by Matt Smith as the hapless Parson Collins. The rest of the cast members do what they can but can only bring so much to their roles without a clear idea of the tone or direction required.
I would have liked to simply sit back and enjoy a fun comedy about zombies in Victorian England bringing death and destruction to a world of class, etiquette and romance. Unfortunately when a film such as this tries to take itself seriously, I must in turn take it seriously as a response. As a romance this film is flat in spite of the strong performance provided by James. As a thriller it is messy and unexciting. As a comedy it kind of works, but only in brief intervals. It seems to me that Steers didn’t know how to approach this material, perhaps because he didn’t know which audience to aim for. Those watching the film for the zombies are going to expect blood, gore and violence in spades. Those looking for a satirical take on Austen will be more interested in the humour and social mores. The failure to execute a balance between the two will likely leave both parties unsatisfied. This film will have its fans I’m sure, but it won’t find an audience or a following.