Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition — Elinor Dashwood, S&S
We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing” — Elizabeth Bennet, P&P
Dear friends and readers,
I’m in the peculiar position of having set out to damn this movie with faint praise, and dutifully reading the major reviews first, finding myself having more to say on behalf of the movie than most, and feeling what was so bad about the movie important enough to warrant explanation. Most reviews were a short paragraph or two at most: Peter Travers of Rolling Stone dismissed it cheerfully (!) as “utter nonsense;”; Manohla Dargis of the New York Times pronounced it “tedious and dull,” was irritated by reiterated motifs and jokes. Christie Lemire, one of those who carry on RogerEbert.com conceded some pictorial value, but it was so poorly done;; I went to Deb Barnum (Jane Austen in Vermont) hoping to fortify myself with praise there, but found that in fact she apologizes for her enjoyment and the movie.
This all agreed, despite the valiant efforts of this or that actor/actress. After an initial promotional showing in Maryland, P&P & Zombies never came near the movie-houses in my area (not DC, not in Northern Virginia, not exactly a backwater), and disappeared from movie-houses in friends’ areas around the country inside a week. Most Jane Austen movies, no matter how jarring the collocations, do very well. What was so bad? What went wrong?
I watched it twice, the first time swiftly through, the second much more slowly, taking a few snaps and paying attention to that or that. I didn’t dislike it the second time as much as I did the first (a common reaction I have to poorer Austen films). It’s memorable, a weird mirror. It shows the same turn for sudden blazing violence as even this summer’s Woody Allen’s Cafe Society includes. I argue despite its egregious flaws, it is not just failed entertainment.
I’m slightly ashamed to say why I disliked it so at first, but as this is why I argue the film is worth thinking about I’ll bring this out. I could not get myself to take it non-seriously. Had I been able to regard it as the smashing together of inane trivia from the conventions of Zombie movies with the plot-outline and most memorable or favored scenes of P&P, which in turn rendered all the Austen parts we have as themselves more inane trivia, then I would not have been disturbed. Damn it, I was.
The given of a zombie movie is there are these zombie creatures inhabiting wherever the movie is taking place, they are utterly distasteful looking — the worst kinds of ugly suppurating wounds, patches on people’s faces or whole parts of their bodies bleeding, filthy (filth is an important part of the visuals), curiously hideous; the face of the person grins at you, and it seems given a chance they would bite or attack you so that you become transformed into something similar. There can be poignant moments as if someone stepping out from a bombed area, some nuclear war:
Only the zombies are not given the chance. The “good” or unpolluted (good = unpolluted, this is part of the worrying subtext) characters assault the zombies first. We are “treated” to the major principles in the film blasting these zombie creatures with bombs, blasts, fire, guns of all sorts, knives photographed close up, long rifles; the principles kick, smash, jump on, and blast out the zombies. Our five heroines we are told have been training as warrior in China (the usual place is said to be Japan), so too Charlotte (Aisling Loftus, Sonya from the recent W&P), over-the-top hideiously made-up is Lady Catherine de Bourgh who is treated as just delectable (Lena Headley) because of her warrior costume and black patch on one eye.
These heroines pass their days hitting one another, slapping, kicking; they walk about with guns. Darcy is a chief hunter-out and destroyer of Zombies, behaving like some doctor in violence.
Considering what goes on in US streets, the killing and violence of fear and hatred also across Europe and the middle east, engendered by this war on (so-called) terror, how can anyone regard this as trivial? it’s a reinforcement. There was Lily James, with a mean expression on her face, hair dyed dark brown (it is just one step too far to make Elizabeth Bennet a blonde), toting and stumbling over huge rifles as she stalked down streets.
I can’t laugh at these versions of slapstick. I never liked laughing at characters made to slip and fall and be humiliated. There is an underlying pattern of humiliation here — voyeuristic laughter at wounded horrors.
My dislike is founded on a deep rejection of senseless violence, of commercial uses of body imagery which debase and degrade the viewer’s sense of what violates whatever fundamental empathy or humanity we have (not a lot). Serious gothic is defensible as expressing deep grief, thoughts about death, the meaning of history in the present, victimization. The second time round I picked up the archetypal plot-design one sees in most spy-thrillers. Early on a bad guy emerges (evil in whatever are the terms of the movie), here Wickham (Jack Huston) and the audience glimpses this while we watch the hero (Colonel yet Darcy) fight this evil person and win and the characters slowly realize it. Like others more recently the hero here is saved by someone else in the nick of time: here Elizabeth, after Darcy has saved her in the nick of time several times — very like the film adaptation of Gabaldon’s Outlander where in the nick of time at the close of the first season Claire (Catriona Balfe) saves Jamie (Sam Heughan); hitherto it had been he who saved her in the nick of time. They too perform riding tricks aside the same horse.
I noticed too that the language used is that our political war filled world. The characters have no choice but to fight and be violent. I thought some of the language used about the zombies was racist (the way black people are talked about by those for allowing police to murder them at will); a friend who studies film as well as literary gothic said the zombies in some zombie movies seem to stand for immigrants. No idea of understanding in the movie anywhere but then the whole lift-off from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is simply exploitative. There was here and there the idea that life and death are connected but that was not structural as in say Branagh’s Frankenstein. So this is a deeply reactionary, fascistic film.
A lot was made of common distaste for bugs.
In the above typically orange-and-black scene of manners (playing cards), the older man is attacked and destroyed without warning because he is supposed a zombie (it’s the same procedure the US uses for drones)
Human beings find insects horrible because they look so different from us, seem so mindless. So bugs are everywhere and we have to watch Lily James crush them with her hands, then drop a bunch into Darcy’s hands. Well, yes, yuk. But this sort of thing doesn’t do much for those wanting to increase respect for otherness in the kingdom of living things. This was part of a vein of foulness.
Aesthetically there was a continual jarring as the film-makers moved back and forth from Austen material taken straight (word-for-word when famous), in more or less quiet usual daylight colors, and zombie scenes. Interwoven absurdly the reading of Forsyte’s sermons. For a moment here and there an actor captured something of the original spirit of Austen’s book (Charles Dance, thrown away here as Mr Bennet — I hope they paid him big, Sally Philips as Mrs Bennet) but mostly the dialogues were made to feel silly and made no sense surrounded by this sudden outbreaks of brutal meanness. (I admit much of it might seem light or harmless if you compare it to what goes on in the popular and fleeting action-adventure, spy-thriller, macho male concoctions as in Games of Thrones, The Infiltrator. It’s more than that Furman’s pacing was inadequate.
OTOH, the photography of London and the gothic imagery was effective, haunting, the mise-en-scenes of gothic places apocalyptic – the grey anonymous city. These set pieces reminded me of the sets created for Jim Jarmusch’s brilliant genuinely apocalyptic The Last Lover Left Alive featuring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston: this was an overly political gothic movie: the city the vampires (in this case) try to escape to or from is Detroit which has been deliberately sluiced and destroyed by super-wealthy (reminding me of similar characters in Our Kind of Traitor, the most recent LeCarre). Richard Davenport-Hines in his Gothic: 400 years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin demonstrates that the gothic is as often used for radical and liberal visions as reactionary atavistic cruelty.
The most interesting aspect of the film was its gothicisms. How stable this kind of material is: someone coming to the movie from the 1790s who had been reading gothics could recognize it, only it was more Victorian, drawing more on the kind of detective gothic coming out of later 19th century books. I can see the origin of this in the fable of Frankenstein, Boris Karloff’s first costuming; in the latest version (Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro) finally the monster’s loneliness, the defiance of death, the strong attack on medicine as violating us was brought out; the zombie machinery just throws that all away but for the occasional look of forlonrness on a female zombie which is quickly erased as she snarls. The more general origin is not what’s called “terror” gothic (often female, often about intangibles, inward) but “horror” gothic (often male, misogynist, doing all it can to violate bodies in startling ways).
One movie does not a genre make but from what I observe in this one zombies belong to the male gothic, violate the body side of gothic. The Jane Austen woman’s film has become a male one. One of the famous stills — which is seen for a moment in this film as an unnamed woman zombie wanders through — is a mask of iron with slates over the woman’s face. This silences her– like taking out her tongue. So you can rape her at will. I’ve few pictures of wife abuse before the later 18th century but one shows a woman whom the court punished by putting such a mask on her face: the court was itself abusing her. (This makes me think of the present Republican insane-hate fest where they chanted at Hilary Clinton “lock er up,” the next best thing is lock her face, cut out her tongue, execute her).
While the two genres utterly clash, beyond Jack Huston a credible, slowly emerging angry, and then enraged Wickham, Aisling Loftus a self-respecting Charlotte, Matt Smith a comically effective Collins, both Lily James and Sam Riley were almost almost moving their last scenes but one (the fatuous wedding, meant to be fatuous, made fun of) — reaching out to one another, the second proposal. When the Jane Austen material was to the fore, however rarely I thought of how Austen’s novels prima facie stand for civilized behavior at a miminum, which is not to be despised in today’s world.
It’s a film you could think about.
The direct source, the men, & the sisters: side issues?
Since Seth Grahame-Smith’s mash-up novel seems to me a gay send up of the archetypal heterosexual romance, I’ll mention I saw no homosexuality, no jokes I could recognize as gay . There is nothing homoerotic in this film unless you impose on Bingley’s usual dependence on Darcy (Douglas Booth as Bingley is made effeminate) and the enraged hostility of Darcy and Wickham (now developed from previous sequels) as homoerotic. Maybe we were to see the anti-violence Collins as gay. This shows a strong stereotyping, and it’s a stretch.
A friend said of “the men, who in the Austen book we see idling like a bunch of Ken dolls, [are] engaging in activity, even if that activity was killing zombies. As one interested in what Kenneth Johnston calls the white spaces in Austen’s novels, I appreciated at least a depiction, if extremely fanciful, of what the men do when they aren’t hanging around drawing rooms.” Yes but I wished they could find something else beyond killing as a trade. A mirror of our time? the US gov’t makes only military jobs. We have girl-power chicks readying themselves with guns
A debate broke out on Janeites because one person (Arnie Perlstein?) claimed tha the film developed a subtext in Austen of Elizabeth’s intense jealousy and rivalry with Lydia, here turned into a kind of hatred. Lily James does seethe at first at the usual sullen spiteful version of Lydia (Ellie Bamber)
The film lacks all subtlety except when Austen material comes through. But this idea is such a tiny element — if you blink you’ll miss it. It starts early on, but is no more prominent than the standard bad behavior of Lydia in this film (she tries to humiliate and scorn her sisters); it’s also overturned because of the stupidity of spy-thriller conventions (more just in the nick of time stuff). Our victim-heroine Lydia is lured into St Lazarus castle and without explanation we next see her chained in a dungeon. Darcy knows where she is (so a tiny hint from the original book) and risks all rescuing her; then Elizabeth knowing where he went, rides after them, and of course rescues them both and the two girls hug in a wooded wasteland at some convenient split second.
In the Austen domestic comedy and romance sequences, the costume designer costumed Lily James to look like Jennifer Ehle; some of her dresses were exactly those of Jennifer Ehle; Jane’s (Bella Heathcote) costumes were same as Jane’s (Rosamund Pike) in Joe Wright’s films.
Maybe it’s too much to call this gothic Jane a significant mish-mash, but it should not just be dismissed. Compare them in gothic guise: