The screenplay by director Burr Steers (yes, that’s a real name--), starts off with Grahame-Smith’s premise—a zombie outbreak in Regency England—and runs with it, making the story into a dramatic epic hung on the skeleton (so to speak) of Austen’s original story of courtship among the gentry.
Lily James does quite a nice job as Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine. Remarkably, the script, where it departs from Austen, isn’t bad, and actually gives Ms. James more scope for acting than either of her well-known recent roles as “Lady Rose McClare” in Downton Abbey or in Cinderella.
Mr. Darcy is a typically stone-faced role, but Sam Riley gives the part interest by making him not as smooth as usual. His raspy voice and slightly unlikely messy “hero hair” supports the impression of a man whose anti-sociality is due to his devotion to his often grisly duty.
The main pair are ably supported. Jack Houston was an ambitiously villainous George Wickham, and Matt Smith a horribly smarmy (and possibly gay) Mr. Collins. Lady Catherine de Burgh, usually portrayed as a grande dame (the progenitor, I am convinced, of both Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, and Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha), was played by Lena Headly as a sort of pirate queen, complete with eyepatch. Making the older generation a bit younger than usually shown also worked well for Sally Phillips as Mrs. Bennett, making her neither as old nor as bubbleheaded as usually done. For my money, Donald Sutherland will always be the Mr. Bennett, but Charles Dance did a very creditable job in this outing.
The movie is also a feast for the eyes in a number of ways. The Bennett’s are not shown as being as poor as frequently shown (In the 2005 movie they were one step above “Cold Comfort Farm”) so the women all have nice dresses, and the houses are all quite palatial. Special effects, including the zombie makeups, are nicely done. Naturally, there is a lot of “gore”, but not too much blood spatter—the Bennett girls take out a roomful of zombies and hardly soil their white gloves. I guess it’s reasonable that the undead don’t bleed like we do.
The adventure plot, in which the zombies have become an actual existential menace, works well, given some unlikely premises (over and beyond the existence of zombies, that is--), and was actually exciting at points, with both Darcy and Elizabeth getting fair shares of the “action hero” work.
One thing I did miss from Grahame-Smith’s book was the convention that the word “zombie” is considered crude, and the undead are referred to as “dreadfuls” or “unmentionables” in polite company. In the movie, they are blatantly “zombies” and the term “unmentionables” is used only once or twice. I missed that bit of ‘refinement’.
By this iteration, the story is far enough removed from Jane Austen that you wouldn’t have to actually know Austen to enjoy the movie, but there’s much more amusement in it if you do.
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