Jane Austen’s brilliant work has endured over two centuries so far and it’s as relevant as ever. I’m not a purist Austen fan, as I actually enjoy alternative/re-imagining of her work, i.e. Lost in Austen, Bride & Prejudice, Bridget Jones Diary, Austenland, etc. But none are as outlandish as what Seth Grahame-Smith’s done in his book. I hadn’t read it, but when I first heard of the film adaptation back when Natalie Portman was supposed to play Elizabeth Bennet, I was already sold. Fast forward 6 years later, Portman is still attached as a producer but this time we’ve got an ensemble of up-and-coming British actors.
As with any mashup, it ought to offer a good balance of the two genres. Whilst I think it has a good mix of both, I do think that this might offer more for fans of period dramas as it might not be bloody/gory enough for zombie lovers. It’s heavy on action with a few jump scares and less on the horror side, which suits me just fine. It’s especially thrilling that director Burr Steers (who also wrote the script) is loyal to Austen’s text and the story is grounded in the timeless romance of Lizzie and Darcy. The social class commentary is also preserved, but of course we’ve got yet another layer beneath the lowest class, that is the undead.
The movie opens with the dashing Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley, perfectly-brooding AND bad-ass) who’s now a Colonel, visiting a wealthy estate in search of recently-turned zombies hiding amongst the living. Within minutes, we see Darcy’s decapitating an undercover zombie in his typical unperturbed stoicism. That scene is followed by a crafty storybook opening credit sequence that explains the fact that in lieu of the Napoleonic Wars, 19th century England is now overrun by hordes of the undead. In this universe though, people who’ve been bitten by the undead don’t immediately turn into full-on zombie until they’ve consumed human brains, hence they can still somehow hide in plain sight.
In order to survive in the world plagued by zombies, they had to be trained in weaponry and martial arts. Apparently the upper class folks have been trained in Japan, whilst those of lesser means, like the Bennet sisters, were trained in China. There’s an amusing bit where Lizzie speaks in Chinese to prove to Darcy that she’s read the proper text of The Art of War. As they say, all is fair in love and war, and thus the zombie apocalypse certainly ups the stakes for everyone involved.
Faithful to the Pride & Prejudice text, the film still has the scenes that Austen fans would expect to see. We still have the Bennet sisters spending time with the family, except that instead of knitting, they’re polishing their muskets and swords. “My daughters are trained for battle… not the kitchen,” Mr Bennet says at one point, played with dignified grace by Charles Dance. We’ve also got the formal ball where Lizzie and Darcy first meet, and it’s played out just like in the original in that they did not get off on the right foot. I must say Lily James is one formidable Lizzie Bennet, even if she is still too pretty for the role just like Keira Knightley was. Miss Bennet is already a feminist icon to begin with, here the female empowerment element is pumped up even more as she’s a Kung-fu warrior who defiantly says that she’d “never relinquish her sword for a ring” and that the right man wouldn’t ask her to.
But of course, the two headstrong pair soon find themselves attracted to each other. It’s crucial in any Pride & Prejudice adaptation that Lizzie and Darcy has chemistry and here they have that in spades. Lizzie is no damsel in distress, and by the time she and her four sisters slash a throng of zombies in slo-mo fashion, it’s Darcy who’s hyperventilating. The entire Bennet sisters are pretty bad ass, even Jane (lovely Bella Heathcote) is no shrinking violet and gets to save Mr. Bingley’s (Douglas Booth) life here. The numerous battle of wits are intact, with some intense physical battles thrown in to spice things up even more. The epic duel between Lizzie and Darcy is definitely my favorite part of the film, it’s immensely fun to watch these typically demure characters kick and hit each other senseless, and undoubtedly release their repressed sexual frustration in the process.
This review from SFGate remarked that the zombies give Darcy a reason to brood about, and I wholeheartedly agree. I have to admit one of the issues I have with Mr. Darcy is that he’s just so enormously wealthy that he doesn’t need to work, and has little reason to justify his somber mood. But here, the titular character is given an intriguing backstory that naturally made him seem less preoccupied with finding a wife given the matters of life and death he has to face daily. There’s also an even more compelling reason why he absolutely detests these zombies (AND Mr. Wickham). I’ve never been one of those Mr. Darcy groupies, but THIS leather-clad, Samurai-wielding zombie killer extraordinaire is a hero worth swooning for, ehm. Speaking of Mr. Wickham (a charming Jack Huston), I think the major twist in Austen’s text involves his character. I won’t go into detail about his character but lets just say he’s quite um, friendly with the zombies. Heck, he even took Lizzie to a church where the patrons are not entirely alive.
I do have a few quibbles about the poor action sequences though. The blurry sequence during the zombie attacks/fight scene get irritating after a while, and there is some inconsistencies about the nature of the zombies as some can seem less *dead* than others. I also think Charles Dance wasn’t given enough to do and neither was his Game of Thrones’ co-star Lena Headey as eye-patch wearing Lady Catherine du Bourgh (Darcy’s aunt). She’s made out to be a fierce zombie warrior, yet we didn’t see a single scene of her battling zombies! The whole sequence of her going after Lizzie in protest of her union with Darcy is rather silly as she brought along a henchman. You’d think a woman of such stature would never be in need of one.
Despite those flaws, overall I had a lot of fun with this one. The actors are fully committed to their roles and they play it straight throughout, no wink-wink nudge nudge as if they’re doing a SNL skit. The deadpan humor is interwoven in the inherently bizarre plot and I was more than along for the ride. I think you’d enjoy this movie more if you accept the sheer audacity of mashing up these two genres from the get go. The fact that the most preposterous scenes are done with a straight face makes them even funnier. Matt Smith steals every scene he’s in as the ridiculous Mr. Collins, though he’s playing him far more flamboyantly than the previous versions. There’s always been a hint that Collins might have a thing for Darcy and it’s played up even more in this movie.
The set pieces and gorgeous costume design by Julian Day is delightful to look at. The soundtrack by Fernando Velázquez is also suitably elegant but with a touch of ominous brood. For fans of rom-coms, this is one where there is both romance AND comedy in equal measure. I definitely will watch this again, and on the big screen! I’m glad the movie ends on a cliffhanger as I wouldn’t even mind seeing a sequel, but only if we have Lily James and Sam Riley back as Lizzie and Darcy. I like James more here than in Cinderella and she certainly can handle the action as well as the drama. I thoroughly enjoyed Sam Riley‘s portrayal of Darcy, he might not be as refined as Colin Firth but he plays up the strong-silent-type hero perfectly. He’s said in interviews that if Firth is the Sean Connery of Darcys, he’s the Roger Moore. But considering his bad-assery and special skills in weaponry, he’s more akin to Daniel Craig’s Bond mixed with Taken‘s Bryan Mills!
So yeah, I find this unlikely mashup more than a little agreeable. I do think the reason this movie works is a testament of the genius of Austen’s writing. Not only does it stand the test of time, the core of the story is intact no matter what backdrop it’s set against.
Have you seen this movie? I’m curious to hear what YOU think!