Thursday, 18 February 2016

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern want your brains

Somehow it took longer to get Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to the multiplex than it took to get the successor in. I put this down to the fact that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter had a killer hook and a single hero, and above all was set in America, which remains the centre of the universe. Also, no-one had to worry about any recent great Lincoln movies, whereas great Pride and Prejudice adaptations are a dime a dozen.

Still, my hopes were high. There was a good notion, a decent looking cast, and if all else failed I could go back to the ticket desk and demand my money back, since I had cunningly asked for a ticket to Pride and Prejudice and the guy on the till had not corrected my mistake. I’m not sure I could have carried off the pretence that I had been looking forward to Keira Knightley’s cheekbones, but you just need a plan, not the conviction that it’s possible.

Sadly, PPZ is another one of those things which looks good on a napkin and doesn’t work at greater length. Like the Laffer Curve, and the WMD dossier and so on. The idea of the book is a great one, just the kind of thing which you’d cook up in the pub and it would be huge laughs until you were sitting in front of the typewriter the next morning, praying that the feeling of nausea and despair was a hangover, and not the realisation that you had to do the thing which had seemed so jolly the night before. The idea of a movie is slightly less daunting, because movies are idiotic to begin with and no-one’s expecting you to write as well as Jane Austen in a movie. On the other hand, producing the book was cheaper, so that’s the order we got them in, followed in short order by Android Karenina and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and thank God at that point the madness stopped and we didn’t get Moby Dick Nixon and Northanger Abbey Road. It seems safe to assume that there’s little risk of film adaptations of any of those titles, but if we do wind up getting Moby Dick Nixon I’m sorry for even suggesting it.

Things that go right: well, there’s a good game in the underlying zombie story, albeit a game which would make most wargamers cry. Zombies versus Napoleonic era British infantry is right in the wargaming wheelhouse, though the more reflective of us would suck our teeth and point to the absence of effective force multipliers for living infantry against the undead in an age before breech loading weapons, before going on to ponder the economic disruption of a zombie apocalypse and the way in which it would compromise the British ability to make war in their preferred way, which was to bribe other people to do all the awkward bits. Also, we’d be well out of countenance at the absence of both Wellington and Napoleon from proceedings.

Also going right; there’s a perfectly decent summer stock production of Pride and Prejudice going on in this movie; the cast are uniformly decent at doing Austen and seem a lot happier at it than they do when they’re fighting zombies. Charles Dance is lovely as Mr Bennet, Lily James impressed me more as Elizabeth Bennet than I expected her to, and Sam Riley’s Darcy was adequate, though I spent the whole movie thinking he was another ringer badged in from Game of Thrones along with Dance and Lena Headey (who is not given remotely enough to do). 

But; and it’s a huge but. For PPZ to work, the zombies have to be the thing which was missing all along from the source text. And instead, they’re just a pain the ass. At every step of the way, you’re reminded that the original book was a masterpiece, and that the zombies are making it worse, not better. I think that where the movie gets it wrong is making the zombies a big deal. The book proper is set against the background of the Napoleonic Wars, but you’d never know that this was life and death struggle for the fledgling British Empire; Austen is very properly focused on the life and death struggle to keep up appearances in the British upper middle class, and the war is a piece of background against which the infinitely more pressing day to day life of the characters unfolds. The zombie peril should have been just the same; a massive problem, which to the characters on screen was a mere distraction from their real worries. Elizabeth should have been stabbing zombies as an afterthought, not trying to save the empire. And in fairness to Lily James, she would have nailed it if she’d just been given the script.

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