Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Movie Review: "Pride & Prejudice & Zombies" (2016)

© Lionsgate

There aren't many film adaptations that are as scrutinized as those for Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Hollywood has the BBC's 1995 mini-series starring Colin Firth to thank for that. But with every iteration, we find that, so long as directors and/or writers are telling the story in a new and interesting (or visually different) way, audiences will still applaud. After all, this is Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy, we're talking about. The BBC version had Mr. Firth, the 2005 version had director Joe Wright, and 2016's version has zombies. I guess we're getting a new one of these every ten years. Based on Seth Grahame-Smith's book of the same name, and his creative take on the Georgian romance, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, is as faithful to the source material as adaptations get. Particularly parody ones.

The five accomplished Bennett sisters have spent their lives in training to protect the zombie-plagued British countryside. Now of marrying age, the headstrong Elizabeth Bennett (Lily James), along with older, quieter sister, Jane (Bella Heathcote), are forced to enter society in search of husbands, at the behest of their dizzying mother (Sally Phillips), despite their father Mr. Bennett's (Charles Dance) hopes for them to pursue zombie-hunting. When Jane catches the eye of the wealthy and hapless Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), Elizabeth finds herself face to face with his unpleasant best friend, Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley), a famous and snobbish killer of the undead. As romance blossoms between Jane and Bingley, Darcy attempts to quell his confounding feelings for Elizabeth, who despises him—a near impossible task when he comes to see how she can fend for herself on the battlefield. As the country is descended upon by a zombie apocalypse, the two must put aside their differences if they hope to survive the war and save the world.

Lily James plays tough and soft to perfection. She doesn't have any hard features, which makes her very unassuming in a role like this. It's why her turn as Cinderella this past year was so believable. Where the film doesn't quite hit the mark is in her on-screen dynamic with Sam Riley's Darcy. The interactions between these two characters, both spoken and unspoken, are absolutely vital to the success of this story, and while each of them embodies their characters nicely, the back and forth between them is missing a key component: chemistry. Sure, Riley pulls off the brooding, across-the-room stare, and James has no issues affirming her defiance in needing a man.

But the film inherently works against the build up of tension, particularly in the famous scene where Darcy first, reluctantly, proposes to Elizabeth (spoiler alert?... ugh, read a book!). The most important part of here is that he wants to touch her, but he can't. HE CAN'T. But how does P&P&Z handle this scene? The frustration devolves into, not unspoken pain, but hand-to-hand combat. Enjoyable to watch! But all the sexual tension built up to that point? Dissolves in an instance. Once Elizabeth straddles his face to pin him down and Darcy pops the buttons off her shirt, it's over. We can all go home. The romance isn't completely lost, but the little bit of magic that Austen fans live for slips just out of reach.

The oddest piece of this plot is not that it's full of Regency zombies. No, that all works quite well, actually. In a world where the rich study Japanese fighting and the "poor" can only afford lowly Chinese martial arts... I'm left wondering, Uhhhh... huh?!? That any of these people traveled any great distance beyond the confines of their county is questionable already, but that they're making nonchalant trips to study in the Orient for long stretches of time while still having the wherewithal to concern themselves with boys rather than diphtheria? I don't buy it. Thankfully, the movie kinda doesn't either, playing the whole thing as a bit of a society status joke, and it makes for plenty of "Up yours!" moments between Elizabeth Bennett and those who aim to demean her for only knowing dumb ol' Shaolin Kung Fu. What a plebeian, amirite?

Oh, and we learned something else super vital to our survival. Social balls are zombie-bait. I mean, duh, of course they are, everybody knows this. So one would wonder why civilized people in this society would continue to throw them. Finding a suitable husband is simply more important than avoiding zombies, I suppose. Knowing that truth, there is something inherently comical about all this that the film barely needs to work hard to achieve. The jokes tumble about with ease, situational as they are, and the entire concept benefits from the commitment to the parody.

The combat makes all the pieces, the ones that work and the ones that don't, come together, because there's just nothing more fun than watching these girls suit up, slip on their knife sheaths, and kick a whole lotta zombie ass. I wish more British society characters solved their problems using a katana. They're not unlike the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in this way, as each sister has her specialty weapon and skill set—but in the end, it's Lily James as the level-headed Elizabeth who grounds the entire film, making us root for everyone's survival. The climax falls apart more than a little bit, particularly as we learn the truth about who the enemy really is, but the initial set-up pays off in spades, and we're rewarded with everything one could have hoped for from a film like this: a wedding. And a blood bath.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars

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