Playing Catch-Up: Love & Friendship (dir by Whit Stillman)


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Earlier this week, I named Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as the worst Jane Austen adaptation of 2016.  Of course, I understand that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn’t really a Jane Austen adaptation.  Instead, it’s an adaptation of a jokey novel that took Austen’s characters and combined them with zombies.  But you know what?  Nobody would have given a damn if the name of that book and that movie didn’t include three words:  Pride.  And.  Prejudice.  That’s the power of Jane Austen.

But anyway, my point is that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was pretty much a low point as far as Jane Austen films are concerned.  Fortunately, 2016 also saw the release of a very enjoyable and entertaining Jane Austen film named Love & Friendship and, even better, Love & Friendship was based on something that Austen actually wrote.

Of course, though Austen may have written the novella Lady Susan, it wasn’t published until long after her death and there’s speculation that it was an unfinished (or abandoned) first draft.  In fact, it’s debatable whether or not Lady Susan was something that Austen would have ever wanted to see published.  While it shares themes in common with Austen’s best known work, it also features a lead character who is far different from the stereotypical Austen heroine.  Lady Susan Vernon is vain, selfish, manipulative, and unapologetic about her numerous affairs.  She’s also one of the wittiest of Austen’s characters, a woman who is capable of identifying and seeing through the hypocrisies of 18th century society.

In Love & Friendship, Susan is played by Kate Beckinsale, who does a great job in the role.  One of the best things about Love & Friendship is that it serves to remind us that Kate Beckinsale is a very good actress, even when she isn’t dealing with vampires and Lycans and all that other Underworld stuff.  Lady Susan is a recent widow and has been staying, with her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), at the estate of Lord and Lady Manwaring (Jenn Murray and Lochlann O’Mearáin) .  That’s a good thing because, as a result of the death of her husband, Lady Susan is now virtually penniless and homeless.  But, once it becomes obvious that Susan is having an affair with Lord Manwaring, she and Frederica are kicked out of the estate.

They eventually find themselves living with Susan’s brother-in-law, Charles (Justin Edwards) and Charles’s wife, Catherine (Emma Greenwell).  Susan, realizing that she needs to find not only a rich husband for Frederica but also one for herself, immediately starts to scheme to win the hand of Catherine’s brother, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel).  Meanwhile, Susan also tries to arrange for Frederica to marry the hilariously slow-witted Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett).  Needless to say, things do not go quite as plan and it’s all rather chaotic and hilarious in its wonderfully refined way.

Director Whit Stillman, who has spent his career making refined and witty movies about morality and manners, is the ideal director for Austen’s material and he’s helped by an extremely witty (and, with the exception of Chloe Sevigny, very British) cast.  In the role of Susan, Kate Beckinsale is a force of nature and Tom Bennett is hilariously dense as Sir James, the type of well-meaning dunce who is literally stumped when someone asks him, “How do you do?”  Never before has dullness been so hilariously performed and Bennett’s performance really is a minor miracle.

Love & Friendship was a wonderful excursion into Austenland.  It didn’t even require zombies to be enjoyable.

 

Film Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (dir by Burr Steers)


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I had high hopes for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the just-released film which, like the novel upon which it is based, attempts to combine Jane Austen and The Walking Dead.  The source material was good.  The cast — with Lilly James as Elizabeth Bennet, Jack Huston as Wickham, and Matt Smith as Parson Collins — was impressive.  The trailers looked great, promising a combination of zombies, ornate costumes, and a very British sense of humor.  Sadly, however, the ultimate film is a bit of disappointment.

Actually, it’s more than just a bit of a disappointment.  It is a HUGE disappointment.  To have so much promise and then to turn out so bland — well, it’s enough to make you wonder if maybe zombies have become so common place in popular culture that they’re no longer as interesting as they once were.  Don’t get me wrong, as a symbol of the impossibility of escaping death, zombies are great nightmare fuel.  But, when you see them in a relatively bloodless PG-13 film like this, you realize that it takes more than just a few random zombies to make an effective horror film.

Plotwise, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is exactly what it says it is.  It tells the same basic story as Pride and Prejudice, with the exception being that England is now under siege from zombies, the Bennet sisters have now been trained in how to kill zombies, Mr. Darcy (played by Sam Riley) is now Col. Darcy and he’s an expert at tracking down zombies and killing them, and Wickham is now more than just a cad, he’s a cad who wants to help the undead overthrow the living.  As I typed all that out, I realized I was probably making the film sound a lot more fun than it actually is.  And really, the movie should be fun but it’s not.

Director Burr Steers never manages to capture the proper tone for telling this story.  The satire is never as sharp as it needs to be.  The scenes that are meant to pay homage to Austen try a bit too hard to capture Austen’s style without contributing any of her insight and the romance between Elizabeth and Darcy is sabotaged by the fact that Sam Riley and Lilly James had absolutely no chemistry together.  The scenes with the zombies are bland, largely because this is a PG-13 rated film and bloodless zombies aren’t particularly scary.  A typical episode of The Walking Dead is more graphic than anything you’ll see in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Which is not to say that there aren’t a few moments when Pride and Prejudice and Zombies kind of works.  It has moments but they’re isolated and they never really come together to build any sort of narrative momentum for the film as a whole.  Sam Riley is a bit of a dud as Darcy but Lilly James, Jack Huston, and especially Matt Smith all give good performance.  (Smith, in particular, is so good as Collins that I would like to see him play the role in an actual adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.)  Early on in the film, there’s a fun scene where the Bennet sisters destroy a horde of zombies and it actually strikes the right balance between comedy and horror.  Before that, we get the traditional scene that we get in all Austen adaptations, of the Bennet sisters preparing for a ball and, in between lacing up corsets and discussing whether they will all be able find husbands, they also carefully conceal the daggers and knives that they will be carrying just in case they happen to run into any of the undead.  It’s one of the few scenes that suggests what Pride and Prejudice and Zombies could have been if it had only found a consistent tone.

For that matter, I also liked the animated opening credits, which wittily explained how the zombies first appeared in England and, not surprisingly, suggested that it was all the fault of the French.  And the film also had a fairly effective scene that shows up in the middle of the end credits and suggested what would might happen if Pride and Prejudice and Zombies 2 is ever put into production.

But ultimately, even those moments that worked only left me frustrated that the rest of the film did not.  For all of its potential, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies disappoints.

Horror Trailer: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies


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It looks like they’ve actually gone ahead and made the damn thing. I remember writing about news of the Seth Grahame-Smith horror mash-up novel being green-lit for the big-screen all the way back in 2010. Yet, nothing much ever came of it. Directors were hired and the cast was set, but each passing year something would derail the project and things would go back to square one.

Now, over five years since that initial announcement back in 2011 we finally have proof that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has actually completed filming and will soon be up on the big-screen this February 16, 2016.