Tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt substantial audiences, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is in fact a moderately entertaining film, not deficient in old-fashioned costume drama when it pleases, nor in the power of being clever where it chooses, but awkward and unsatisfying. It comes with a very encouraging pedigree, based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s high-concept bestseller; it has the fortune of well-qualified cast members, all in the habit of investing their roles with more than they ought, and taking cues from other films of rank; and its producers ought therefore in every respect to have been entitled to think well of their box office prospects, and meanly of others. However, in Hollywood, the power of doing anything with quickness is always much prized by the possessor of the rights to a hot property, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance. But the public’s good opinion, once lost, is lost forever.
It is not hard to fix on the minute, or the spot, or the look or the words, which laid the foundation for America’s passing fixation with cheeky genre mash-ups. It was not too long ago. Yet the trend reached its endpoint before this film had begun shooting. As a novel, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” cheerfully exploited public-domain laws by combining the actual text of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel with additional new details that wove in parallel tales of a zombie plague (even impertinently crediting Miss Austen as co-author), creating a literary sensation and a wealth of imitators upon its publication in 2009. Gimmick or no, the novel managed to combine its warring components charmingly: Such squeamish readers as cannot bear to connect their Georgian-era drawing-room comedies with brain chomping and exploding heads are not worth a regret. In director-screenwriter Burr Steers’ filmic adaptation, however, there seems a gulf impassable between them, and the film’s cast must learn to be content with being cleverer than the material deserves.
The tonal progressions of the film are very rapid; it jumps from dancing to zombie slaying, and zombie slaying to talk of matrimony in a moment. It opens gaily, with a prologue that introduces the leather-frock-coated Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley) — a gentleman of handsome features, noble mien, 10,000 pounds a year, and a quick trigger finger — as he investigates and eliminates a zombie infestation at a whist party. As further explained by a delightful storybook credits sequence, England has been overrun by hordes of the undead, uncharmingly grouped, which appear to uncommon advantage in their sieges against the living.
For the Shaolin Temple-trained Bennet sisters, of which the eldest Jane (Bella Heathcote) and the headstrong Elizabeth (Lily James) are the only ones of consequence, the zombies are but a minor obstacle in the path of the more pressing matter of securing suitable marriages. Using generous dialogue directly from Austen’s novel, Jane and Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth, the type of happy actor to whom almost every female eye is turned) undergo a dissonant courtship, while Elizabeth and Darcy play out a more tempestuous battle of wits amid the zombie raids. That expression of “violently in love” is so hackneyed, so doubtful, so indefinite that it gives very little idea of Elizabeth and Darcy’s repartee, which at one point encompasses hand-to-hand combat and verbal jousting simultaneously. Their performances are well met, and their bouts of acrobatic flirtation provide the film’s chief pleasures: Is not general incivility the essence of both love and kung fu?
Regarding the sequences of zombie mayhem, Steers’ camera does not move over these scenes in the masterly manner which one sees so many directors do. He does not have the same force or rapidity, and with the violence confined to PG-13 parameters, it does not produce the same expression. Jump scares and genuine suspense are different things, though the two are often thought of synonymously here.
As for the zombies themselves, they attack in various ways — with bare-faced lurching, ingenious strategies and distant swarming; but making them interesting eludes the skill of all involved, and the film is at last obliged to concoct a secondhand doomsday scenario to increase the stakes. At intervals, Steers appears as eager to escape all the swordplay as the characters, with the scenes of ballroom courtship curiously more intense than the scenes of carnage. (Adieu to dismemberment and spleens! What are flesh-eating ghouls to quadrilles and duets after supper?)
In acting, James is the superior. Riley is by no means deficient, but James’ performance is clever. She is at the same time haughty, reserved and deadly, and her manners, though alive to the potential for parody, are always presented with a straight face. In that respect her co-star has greatly the advantage. Riley seems sure of playing the material for laughs wherever he appears; James is continually straddling the line. Elsewhere in the cast, Lena Headey is excessively diverting as the Amazonian superwarrior Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Matt Smith, ideally cast as the odious Mr. Collins, is all astonishment.
(Jane Austen contributed to this review.)