Jane Austen with a zesty zombie twist
W(MA15+) e will never know for sure but chances are Jane Austen would have approved of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The undead, after all, are not interested in people’s good looks or great fortunes but in their brains, and women’s grey matter is every bit as valued as men’s. “It is a truth universally acknowledged,’’ we are told at the outset, “that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”
How much of your own brain you need to engage to take in this adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s popular mashup novel is up to you. The parody of Austen’s 1813 classic is there to grin at, as that opening line suggests, but personally I soon stopped trying to line up the jokes and just sat back and enjoyed the zombie action.
That starts in rousing fashion when Mr Darcy (Sam Riley) visits a country house where he suspects a zombie is lurking. He sets free carrion flies from a bottle he carries at all times. “It is not the buzzing that should concern you,’’ he soberly tells his hostess, “but when the buzzing stops.’’ It stops when the flies alight on the still normal-looking zombie-in-residence, whom Darcy terminates with extreme prejudice.
We learn that England has been fighting a zombie war for 100 years. London is a crowded walled city; the rich, such as Darcy, live in fortified pastoral estates; the undead are everywhere else and seem to be gaining the upper hand.
In a neat twist on the snobberies of 19th-century England, it is where you did your zombiekilling martial arts training that demarks the wealthier classes. Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James of Downtown Abbey) and her four sisters trained in China, in line with the family’s modest means. There’s a sparky scene where she oneups the blaggard Mr Wickham (Jack Huston) over the reading of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
The Pride and Prejudice story also plays out. Elizabeth and Darcy like each other, but his pride is a problem. The beautiful Jane Bennet (Australia’s Bella Heathcote) has the attention of the handsome and super-rich Mr Bingley (Douglas Booth). Charles Dance, the go-to actor for bluff patriarchs, is perfect as Mr Bennet. Matt Smith, the 11th Doctor Who, provides light relief as the unctuous clergyman Mr Collins. And icy Lena Headey, Dance’s daughter in Game of Thrones, is the haughty Lady Catherine de Bourg, who here is an eye patch-wearing zombie slayer. “Function,’’ she replies when asked if the patch is a fashion choice.
As the zombie apocalypse threatens there’s a lot of blood and guts (and brains) but it’s nothing you won’t see on an episode of The Walking Dead. Indeed American director Burr Steers ( Igby Goes Down) doesn’t let the violence linger, perhaps with an eye to his home market, where the film scored a PG-13 rating. The Australian MA15+ rating is for “strong comedic violence’’.
The best scenes are visual but quieter: the Bennet girls sitting in the parlour, sharpening their knives and cleaning their guns; Elizabeth and Darcy in a martial arts tango after she rejects his first marriage proposal.
The attractive cast, lighthearted spoof of a much-filmed novel and zombie-mashing action make this an easy entertainment. Watching the Bennet sisters slide knives into their garter belts, I was reminded of a line from Austen’s final novel, Persuasion: “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies in- stead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.” Based on the first 20 minutes of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, here’s a list of people director Michael Bay doesn’t like: CIA desk jockeys, diplomats, graduates of Harvard and Yale, anyone who can’t bench press twice their own body weight. Islamic extremists, the ostensible bad guys, follow somewhere down the line. The status of women is unclear: when it’s mentioned that Muammar Gaddafi’s praetorian guard consisted of well-endowed Amazons, one of Bay’s heroes opines: “Gaddafi may have been an evil asshole but he wasn’t stupid.’’
It’s easy to poke fun at Bay. He loves blowing up things (and here, as in Pearl Harbor, he includes a bomb’s perspective), he overdoes the patriotism and the machismo, usually in combination, and seems to see no real distinction between God and the United States.
But that doesn’t mean you can just make up stuff about his movies. I read, for example, that 13 Hours had no close-ups of Arab faces. That isn’t true. We see the Arab fighters on both sides of the civil war and we see a range of emotions from them. The most moving scene comes when Arab women and children drift into a noman’s land to claim their dead. It’s beautifully shot by Oscar-winning Australian cinema-
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies tographer Dion Beebe, who brings a lot of class to Bay’s testosterone-fuelled true life drama.
Beebe won his Oscar for the lavish Memoirs of a Geisha but his handheld camera work here, which captures the chaos, confusion and permanent panic of a lawless place, recalls his collaboration with Michael Mann on the brilliant Tom Cruise hit-man thriller Collateral.
13 Hours, based on the book by Mitchell Zuckoff, tells the story of a concerted extremist attack on two US facilities — a diplomatic compound and a not-so-covert CIA outpost — in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. It is a year after the overthrow of Gaddafi and the Libyan city is one of the most dangerous places on earth. Bay and Beebe convey this succinctly in a panicky sequence in a street market. The touts offer not knock-off designer sunglasses but rockets and other heavy weapons.
The job of protecting the US diplomats and spies rests with six private military contractors, all former elite soldiers. They look similar — bearded bricks — but it’s worth singling out John Krasinski as Jack Da Silva. He has come a long way from Jim Halpert in the American version of The Office and he has been building to an impressive role like this for a while.
There are tensions with the CIA chief on the ground (an excellent David Costabile). “You are the hired help; act the part,’’ he tells them. But when the shooting starts, the real men take over. “You’re in my world now,’’ team leader Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale) cautions.
The ensuing siege is gripping. The 2½-hour running time has few slow spots and brings home the relentlessness of the situation (as the title suggests, the waves of attacks lasted 13 hours). There’s a keen sense of the defenders’ desperate uncertainty when it came to differentiating, in a trigger second, between the “bad guys” and the “good guys’’ of the local militia. This is what a place looks like when everyone has guns.
Benghazi happened on the watch of Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. But no mention is made of the presidential aspirant. Bay’s interest is less political and more personal. He tells the story of six men, all of whom have families, doing a bloody job in near-impossible circumstances. If you are looking for an immersive action thriller, this will do the trick.
Bella Heathcote and Suki Waterhouse in