First and foremost, I can't believe this movie actually finally exists.
In development since 1921 or thereabouts, this is one of those films that has had roughly 300 different directors attached since it was first announced. At one point, this was going to be a David O. Russell film with Natalie Portman starring, and I'm still not sure what that would have looked like. The thing is, when Seth Grahame-Smith first published his mash-up novel, built onto the skeleton of Jane Austen's classic, I'm going to bet he never imagined how long it would take for this to become a movie, or even that it would be one someday. It felt like a sort of English major goofing around, only to somehow see it become this publishing smash.
And all credit to Grahame-Smith, who has made a lovely career out of bending and breaking icons, for actually seeing this through. What is most impressive about the final film, adapted for the screen and directed by Burr Steers, is that it gets the Pride and Prejudice side of things right, and that's what matters most. After all, Jane Austen's original novel is one of the most adapted books in film and television, and not just in terms of direct adaptations. If you add in things like the Bridget Jones movies, it's almost staggering how many works have borrowed the basic dynamics of Austen's story and repurposed them in one way or another.
It would have been easier, no doubt, to just make a monster movie and throw in some corsets, but both Lily James, who plays Elizabeth Bennet, and Sam Riley, who plays Mr. Darcy, play it dead straight, and the most important thing about the movie is their developing relationship. Jack Huston is appropriately slimy as Mr. Wickham, Douglas Booth is solid and sincere as Mr. Bingley, and Charles Dance is a well-cast Mr. Bennet, worried about the fortunes of his various daughters. Sally Phillips, who is in all three of the Bridget Jones films, including the new one, is one of those hard working UK actors who is almost always good, and that's certainly true here as she plays Mrs. Bennet just right, worried about the social standing of her daughters but not cruel or ugly about it. Of the other Bennet sisters, the only one to make a real impression is Jane, played by the aggressively adorable Bella Heathcote. Kitty (Suki Waterhouse), Mary (Millie Brady), and Lydia (Ellie Bamber) are all charming, but it's the nature of the story that they're underwritten, background characters at best. Matt Smith steals every single moment he's onscreen as Parson Collins, who shows up looking for a wife and employed by the legendary zombie killer Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey).
Oh, yeah. The zombies. There are plenty of of them, and they have a plan. Even that, though, is built in a way that allows the story to hew as closely to Austen's original game plan as possible. Things build to what is meant to feel like a fairly large-scale ending, but this is a modestly-budgeted film, and Steers is exceedingly careful about how he handles the “big” stuff. The film's not really scary at all, even in the most “frightening” scenes in the film, and it's played fairly mild for the PG-13. But despite not being scary, there's something fun about what it does to the character dynamics to have monsters as a constant low-grade threat. When Jane gets sick and has to stay at the Bingley estate, part of the concern here isn't just pneumonia but the threat of a zombie bite and a change. And honor isn't the ultimate thing that can be threatened in this version of the story, although it is still a constant focus. They spend some energy setting up how great the Bennet girls are at zombie combat at the start of the film, and they pay it off in little fits and starts, but if there's an imbalance here (and there is), it's in favor of the Austen. That's fine, but for the first time since the book was published, I finally feel like, “Oh, this could work,” and they get close enough that I wish it pulled it off all the way.
As date movie alternatives go, especially on Valentine's Day, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies turns out to be entirely agreeable, if not spectacular, and considering the alternatives when you're dealing with something as borderline preposterous as this, that's fairly impressive. Burr Steers has had an uneven career so far, but his real knack seems to be striking a certain comic tone with his actors, and he feels like he turned out to be a good call for this one.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is in theaters this Friday.