Film-Forward Review: [THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB]

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Emily Blunt as Prudie
Photo: Ralph Nelson

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Written & Directed by: Robin Swicord, based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler.
Produced by: John Calley, Julie Lynn & Diana Napper.
Director of Photography: John Toon.
Edited by: Maryann Brandon.
Music: Aaron Zigman.
Country of Origin: USA. 105 min. PG-13 rating.
Released by: Sony Pictures Classics.
With: Maria Bello, Emily Blunt, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman, Maggie Grace, Jimmy Smits, Hugh Dancy, Kevin Zegers, Marc Blucas & Lynn Redgrave.

The secret is out – Jane Austen’s books are aphrodisiacs for women. The Jane Austen Book Club also sets out to prove that men will do anything to get a woman into bed – even read Austen.

The opening montage shows just about everything that can go wrong on a typically noisy, irritating day of modern life. So mother hen Bernadette (Kathy Baker) imagines that the perfect escape would be the familiar comfort of re-reading all of Jane Austen’s books and discussing them with friends. Six books over six months with five women and one guy, Grigg (Hugh Dancy). As one ruefully notes that “Reading Jane Austen is a minefield,” each one brings their very personal interpretations to each book as their lives in and around Sacramento play out like in a small English village.

Just as the book club starts, mousy librarian Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) is reeling from the end to her marriage to Daniel (played by Brenneman’s NYPD Blue co-star Jimmy Smits). Their adventurous gay daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) joins the circle for moral support. Independent Jocelyn (Maria Bello) is grieving over the death of a beloved dog (she refers to dog breeding for pithy comparisons to human relationships). And neophyte high school French teacher Prudie (Emily Blunt) has become so disappointed in her jock husband Dean (Marc Blucas, whose presence isn’t the only Buffy the Vampire Slayer reference to female-empowering science fiction) that she’s sorely tempted by 18-year-old bad boy Trey (Kevin Zegers).

A computer techie and sci-fi fan, Grigg is such an Austen newbie that he buys the collected works in hard cover to read them in order as if they are sequels, and he dumbfounds the group with a Star Wars comparison (but impresses them mightily for actually reading the gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho that figures in Northanger Abbey). To get all such jokes and sparring, it does help to have read at least some of the oeuvre or to have seen their various movie versions (extending to Clueless [Emma set in high school] when Prudie wails that “High school’s never over”). The book discussions, even with some repetitive phrases, are delightful. (Their Austen biographical references don’t dovetail with the romantic fiction of Becoming Jane.)

The cast is comfortably familiar with ensemble work from television dramas. Their looks and gestures amplify the dialogue between the proud and the prejudiced, the incensed and the sensible. While Brenneman believably gains confidence and allure, Blunt is marvelous at taking brittle Prudie from uptight to turned-on to a breakdown that, of course, can only be resolved by reasoning “What would Jane Austen do?”

Editor Maryann Brandon, who has been J.J. Abrams’ right-hand woman on actioners Alias and Mission: Impossible III, treats words like shoot-outs and romantic glimpses like suspicious spying. Cinematographer John Toon previously shot the bleak Sylvia and Rain, but keeps the same focus on personal intensity with a much brighter look and lighter touch.

In her debut as a feature film director, Austen fan Robin Swicord brings Karen Joy Fowler’s book to life more fully than her adaptations of Practical Magic and Memoirs of a Geisha. She fleshes out some characters, expanding on the people in Prudie’s life, whose pot-smoking hippie mother Mama Sky (Lynn Redgrave) is a bit over the top. In eschewing the Rashomon-style of Fowler’s book to instead continually cut between all the characters, Swicord takes away the mystery from much-married Bernadette, who is cast too young, and Grigg, whose motivations and intentions are too simplified and flattened. However, the camera catches the men’s visceral responses that the book only implied, from ogling to jealous glances or grabbing Northanger Abbey to shield an inconvenient erection.

My husband of 30 years has not been persuaded to read another Austen book since high school on the grounds that no book is worth reading where the climax is a walk in the garden (though they do more than that by the conclusion here), but one marriage has emerged from our monthly book club. This charming film could encourage more reading groups. Nora Lee Mandel
September 21, 2007



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