Guess what? I am completely unfamiliar with PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Sorry. Just am. No particular reason. I never had to read it in school. And I read a lot of books – many of them classics – but that one just hasn’t crossed my path, yet. Nor have any of the film adaptations. So, I would imagine that I may be missing many references and Easter eggs, here, that others will catch. Is this what it’s like to watch a Marvel film without ever having read a comic book? If so, then I was always right in my assumption about that: it works for fans and for the newbies.
Right up front, I have to say that I have no idea who was considered Pride and Prejudice and Zombie‘s target audience, if anyone at all. As I sat watching it, I came to believe that the filmmakers were more concerned with just letting the film take ownership of itself than they were with forcing it to try to appeal to any specific demographic(s). In my mind, this helped it artistically, but crushed it, financially.
In much the same way that the film refuses to cater to the audience, it also resists being pigeonholed into a genre. One is always supposed to know one’s audience and I’m pretty sure that the filmmakers felt the same way I did in the previous paragraph. They had no clue who the audience was going to be. So, they didn’t try to classify the film to satisfy an audience that too often demands said classification. It’s not scary. At all (other than a non-traditional jump or two). It doesn’t attempt to be. That’s not why it’s here. It does have some comedic elements, but never goes for belly-laughs. It’s a much more understated, dry, deadpan style of humor that – in all honesty – completely works for the picture. After all, were Victorian-era Brits really known for their comedic stylings? When were jokes even invented? Not before then, from what I’ve been taught. There are also some dramatic elements, but nothing so heavy that it could be classified as a drama.
What all of this boils down to is that it’s my favorite style of movie: a mishmash of genres that accurately reflects real life. Nobody’s days are ever made up of just drama or just comedy or just horror and when films reflect that truth, they gain points in my book. As I’ve stated before, films are art and art should be open to expression. I appreciate that director Burr Steers didn’t feel obligated to pigeonhole his film into any particular genre in order to meet expectations. One can never meet everyone’s expectations, anyway, so there’s no need to try. Make your movie, tell your story, and it let it be what it is. And Steers does that.
And I, myself, ended up having a good time, for the most part. The dialogue wasn’t always sparklingly captivating. And the end fell victim to one of my least favorite clichés (or “tropes” as people like to say when they don’t want to admit it was lazy writing), which I won’t spoil here. That was my biggest complaint with the film, though, and I found much more to enjoy than I did to complain about.
The biggest joy to behold, by far, is the performance of Lily James. I don’t remember her turn in Clash of the Titans and I’ve never watched Downton Abbey, so my only recollection of her was in last year’s painfully flat and dull Cinderella. In that film, she had nothing to work with. She had to fall in line with the rest of the film, which (with the exception of Lucy Punch) was the most straightforward, uninspired, paint-by-numbers adaptation of anything I’ve ever seen. And I would assume that she was directed to perform in the same way.
In Pride, James gets to show off. It’s often in subtle ways – a vocal inflection, here, a facial tic, there – because she is, after all, supposed to be a “lady”. But there’s depth to her character. She takes advantage of a role-reversal scenario where she’s the hero and the men play (what’s the male version of he word “damsel”? Oh . . . got it!) Samsel in distress. She’s a woman striving for (here comes the new buzz word that all the kids are using these days) agency in a time and place when most women were there solely to marry and breed. (Granted, her quest for this agency largely revolves around marriage but there’s such a thing as artistic integrity and that pretty much had to be the launching point for the women’s lib movement in this story. One step at a time. And, after all, love is part of life – for men and women, both – and it’s silly to claim that anytime a woman falls for a man in a film, it’s sexist. Some people just yearn to be outraged.) And in both her quieter moments and her more expressive scenes, it seems to me that James is having a lot of fun. That projects itself to the screen every time she’s on-camera and makes her Pride character every bit as endearing and dare I say attractive as she was supposed to be in Cinderella. If she can carry this charisma forward into her future roles, I could easily be converted from a fan of this singular performance to a full-blown Lily James fan.
The other characters – especially the men – fall into the more traditional archetypes for this kind of story. The men are cocky and bull-headed, not one of them to be trusted, and fighting over whichever woman they deem most attractive. But that isn’t a slight on the filmmakers. That’s the entire point of the film. James’s character can’t be special or unique if any others are also breaking from stereotype in a significant way.
Also, the movie is probably the most beautiful film I’ve seen, so far, this year. The cinematography is just gorgeous and Steers knows how to frame a shot. I kept thinking how great this would look on blu-ray on my LED TV at home. Even when the dialogue lulled, from time to time, I never wanted to take my eyes off of the screen.
Oh, hey! There were zombies in this, too! Pride throws its own twist onto the zombie virus and I always appreciate getting something a little different. I never felt like the rules were fully explained, however, but I suppose they don’t have to be. Some things just seemed to happen really, really quickly and I’m not sure how or why. That didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the film, though. And while the zombies cast a shadow over the entire narrative, they aren’t omnipresent and seem to be more symbolic of the mindset of the people of that era than a source of scares or a constant feeling of dread. The timing of their appearances always seemed to coincide with some sort of oppressive notion and the second any of the zombies appeared to be veering from the conservative hive mind . . . well, things didn’t end well for it. So, this zombie movie, like many others before it, has some subtext. But you have to look for it.
This being only the second weekend that Pride is in release, I was surprised to see that my local theater only had two showings on a Saturday. It’s already on the way out, after a $5.3 million opening weekend on a $28 million budget. So, what happened? My best guess is that, in trying to appeal to no one, specific, it appealed to no one, at all. Girls were turned off by all the zombies and guys were turned off by all the pride and prejudice. And that’s a shame. While I’d say the movie is my second-favorite of the year, so far (behind Deadpool), it wasn’t so great that it will end up on my Top Ten of 2016 list, or anything (unless the summer and Oscar-bait seasons are unusually weak) , but it deserves an audience.
I don’t often say this, but maybe this is a rare instance where changing it to an R-rated film would have helped. The violence and the sexiness were both present but also muted and it seems like when people see zombies, they want full-on violence and when they see Victorian-era Britain, they want full-on sexiness. At this point, trying that couldn’t have lowered the box office returns. The story could have stayed exactly as it is but maybe with more eyeballs and more box office returns, which is always the ultimate goal. But, hey, it’s easy to say that now. They took a gamble, made a call, and – for whatever reason – it didn’t work out financially.
Still, it’s enjoyable if you go in open-minded and let it be what it is instead of what you demand it to be. Always keep in mind that these films are not yours; they are someone else’s personal vision and expression and it’s often hard to share something like that with anyone, much less the general public. I always avoid judging a film for what it isn’t and instead focus on what it is. So, what is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? It’s beautiful, self-aware, unique, a little unfocused, and silly – but in all the right ways, with a performance by James that is a bit of a coming out party.
And it will look great on blu-ray on my LED TV.