Pride and Prejudice and Zombies review: “a perversely clever construct that works like a charm”

There's bonnets, breeches, blood and LOTS of brains as the Regency costume drama goes all George A Romero

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★★★★

Jane Austen must be spinning in her grave! And how appropriate considering what has affectionately, and even more infectiously, been done here to her most famous novel. 

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Based on the 2009 parody mash-up by author Seth Grahame-Smith that interpolated gut-crunching zombie mayhem into Austen’s authentic 1813 prose, the movie version has been a long time coming with many shifts in cast (including Natalie Portman, who retains a producer credit) and crew (director David O Russell) taking place in the interim.

But it’s hard to see how the latter would have done the blood-and-bonnets artifice better than final choice Burr Steers, who does exactly the right things with the perversely clever construct. 

For a start, it looks terrific, with an epic historical drama look and polished production values. Anything less would have cheapened its overall effect in so many crucial ways. Most importantly, it never pulls punches in either the blood-soaked zombie or period bodice-ripping departments; Steers plays both aspects dead straight, meaning each reinforces the entertaining and heightened integrity of the sharp satire, slapstick, swashbuckling and splatter.

On the page, Austen’s realism, biting irony and social commentary gained enormously from the nonsense and insensibility contrast of the living-dead hordes. But on screen her delightful dissection of Regency manners and the civilised sparring between the two main characters gains even more harrowing potency because of crafty visual nods to its clear inspirations, Tony Richardson’s British New Wave movie The Charge of the Light Brigade and George Romero’s game-changing Day of the Dead. Some genuinely funny Monty Python-esque daffiness adds yet more fresh and flesh-eating twists to this wonderfully executed tale of two genres.

As we all know, Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) and her four sisters live on the Longbourn estate with their parents. But while Mrs Bennet (Sally Phillips) is still eager to marry her daughters off to wealthy suitors among the landed gentry, Mr Bennet (Charles Dance) is more concerned their Shaolin martial arts and weapons training are up to zombie-killing scratch. For this alternate Austen universe is set 70 years after a Black Death-style pandemic has created a London of the Living Dead, which Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley) and his army do their best to contain.

The reticent growing attraction between feisty Elizabeth and dour Darcy here is complicated by the arrival of smooth Mr Wickham (Jack Huston), who captures Elizabeth’s favour due to his proselytising of a cohabiting solution between the living and the dead (involving the Saint Lazarus church congregation, where pig brains are substituted for human ones), much to Darcy’s vehement consternation. But when it’s revealed Wickham and Darcy have a dark past history, the blood-soaked battlefield is set for more romantic intrigue, horrific heartbreak, thrilling sword fights and marching rotting corpses.

The cast is absolutely spot-on, with James pitch-perfect as you’d imagine after her work on Downton Abbey, War and Peace and Cinderella, and Riley determinedly essaying a brilliant cross between Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange and the antihero persona of James Mason. 

Phillips and Dance shine, too, having a ball playing against their costume drama archetypes with great support from Huston and Lena Headey’s eye-patched grand dame, Lady Catherine De Bourgh. 

However, everyone is put in the shade by Matt Smith’s Parson Collins, stealing every single scene he insidiously slinks through. Smith is completely hilarious and high points this appealing panorama of heaving bosoms and zombie panic.

Beginning with subjective murder and then progressing to a startling head explosion that creates an exhilarating apprehension to where director Steers will unexpectedly strike next, the playful horror is as upfront as the heady romance and never short-changed. 

Considering how horribly wrong this unusually delicate balance could have gone, it really is saying something about the success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies that it works like a charm, delivering furtive glances and fetid cadavers in equally absurd proportion to remain a commodious and dastardly fine pleasure throughout.  

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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is released in cinemas on 11 February