“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” So goes the opening line of the novelty book Pride And Prejudice And Zombies and, as such, the opening line of narration of the movie adaptation. It’s the perfect funny-stupid one-liner accompaniment to a perfect funny-stupid title—but not, as it turns out, the perfect hook on which to hang an entire movie. That this particular retelling of the Jane Austen novel feels like a Cliffs Notes version is understandable; that its zombie bits are equally rudimentary, though, is more disappointing. The movie feels bloodless, and not just because the gore is muted and computerized to stay within the boundaries of a PG-13 rating.
The actors do their best to take their parts seriously. Lily James, fresh from giving a better performance than Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella deserved, has another go at essentially pointless material, and makes a plucky Elizabeth Bennet, one of five daughters whose mother (Sally Phillips) frets about marrying off. The movie reconfigures the Bennet sisters as zombie-slaying students of martial arts, which functions both as an expression of their burgeoning independence and, unfortunately, a commonality that makes the sisters more difficult to distinguish. As in the Austen novel, Elizabeth observes the courtship of her older sister Jane (Bella Heathcote, with the countenance of a faded photograph even before her character takes ill) by Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), and in the process encounters the standoffish Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley). Here Darcy is also rewritten as a zombie-slayer (this is about the level of invention the material displays), and given a halting pre-credits bit of killing that pulls further focus from the Bennet sisters.
The movie hits the bullet points of the novel, interspersed with zombie battles. This should, at very least, lend this newest filming of Pride And Prejudice a distinct visual advantage over the dozen or so film and television versions that came before it. Early on, the movie plays up its cosplay camp, with a montage of the Bennet sisters outfitting themselves in 19th-century garb along with assorted pistols and hidden garter-knives. But this sequence is cheekier and more engaged than what follows. Writer-director Burr Steers sequesters his cast from much of his remaining visual cleverness: quasi-historical exposition told as a moving pop-up book; a trickle of blood standing in for the standard red dotted line tracing the characters’ journey on a map; a few blurry zombie’s-eye-view shots. He also makes a winking reference to the 1995 miniseries and a possible tracking-shot nod to the 2005 Joe Wright version. What Steers doesn’t do is gin up much human interest (or, for that matter, zombie interest) in the heart of Austen’s story. Rather than revitalizing familiar material, the film makes it feel like a series of foregone conclusions.
It didn’t have to be this way. While Pride And Prejudice And Zombies sounds like a simple mashup of literary pedigree and horror-movie tropes, the mere process of putting this fusion on screen introduces a passel of genres; it is, by turns, a romantic comedy, a horror movie, an actioner, a costume drama, and, briefly, a war movie. The surprise of the film ultimately comes not from its appealing juxtapositions but from the way it winds up individually botching most of the different elements it juxtaposes. It isn’t especially funny, with its find/replace approach to integrating the words “zombie” and “brains” into Austen’s story (though Doctor Who’s Matt Smith gets some laughs as a fussy would-be suitor). It isn’t especially scary, because apart from some smeary soft-focus and obligatory English fog, Steers doesn’t offer much in the way of atmosphere. And, most crucially, its action sequences have little shape; they’re just bursts of exploding heads and offscreen slashes.
It’s telling that the most exciting bits of action don’t pit humans against zombies at all, but rather humans against each other. A training sequence in the basement of the Bennet home and a confrontation between Elizabeth and Darcy both have characters sparring athletically while spouting abridged Austen dialogue. It’s not especially sophisticated, but it is a playful, fan-pleasing match of the physical and verbal. The characters’ movements become extensions of their feelings, imbuing their banter and arguments with a palpable sense of performative release. For a few minutes at a time, the Austen/genre fusion makes delightful sense. Maybe they should have gone with Pride And Prejudice And Ninjas.