The Jane Austen Book Club, movie version

In Which Diana and Natasha See The Jane Austen Book Club Film
by Diana Birchall

Invited to a press screening of the new movie The Jane Austen Book Club, whom could I invite but Natasha, thus bringing our experience visiting the movie set full circle? We both enjoyed the movie, and it was particularly great fun to see the scene we watched being filmed, played on the screen. Here are both our reviews, and a picture of us at the screening:

The Jane Austen boom heats up with the arrival of screenwriter/director Robin Swicord’s deft and funny adaptation of Karen Joy Fowler’s popular novel. Six friends who form a book club to read their way through Jane Austen’s novels may sound like a recipe for a summer nap, but Swicord’s charming comedy is bright and alert. A bitingly funny opening montage shows the irritating overload of computers and cell phones gone mad in modern city life, and we immediately understand why the book club members need to escape into the Austen canon for solace. Ironically, their fraught lives find their own reflection in the books – Sylvia (Amy Brennerman), whose husband is having an affair, trembles at the infidelities in Mansfield Park; her charmingly accident prone lesbian daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) is drawn to the duality of Sense and Sensibility; and Grigg (Hugh Dancy), the group’s one male member, is an adorable modern day Mr. Darcy as computer nerd. The ensemble’s hilariously disparate characters have a warm chemistry together and are impressive individually. Amy Brennerman’s emotionally wrenching Sylvia is tenderly supported by the expressive Maggie Grace as her daughter, and Maria Bello is outstanding as a ditz who’s emotionally lavish with her dogs but unavailable for relationships. Swicord, employing lively, vibrant camera work and joyously colorful settings, orchestrates the unlikely spectacle of actors doing lit crit with jokes, with such seemingly effortless verve as to put us, as Jane Austen said, in “dancing, laughing, exclaiming spirits.”

The Jane Austen Book Club, movie version, reviewed by Natasha Zwick

It’s 10 pm. I just got home from Sony Studios, where I met Diana Birchall, who had invited me to attend the press screening of the movie whose set we had visited last year together. I am scheduled to teach a poetry seminar at 7:45 tomorrow morning. I should be unwinding from my busy day and getting ready for some much-needed sleep. Instead, alas, I feel compelled to write my review now because the details dancing in my mind, and I want to be sure to record their movement for you.

This is a fun film, but it didn’t feel that way at first. True, I enjoyed the opening sequence of the downsides to living in this great city of angels (or arguably, most modern cities, to some degree)—crazy drivers, credit card machines that don’t react to humans the way they’re supposed to, vending machines that refuse to yield their product, spilled coffee in the car, and stores that force you to open bags containing goods you have paid for and tucked away legitimately only to have the alarm sensors go off when you try to exit the store like a respectable person.

We meet most of our major characters in this sequence, but at first it is difficult, even after having read the book, to recognize that that is what we are doing. Scenes in the first part of the film felt a bit choppy, even forced, to me.

But my patience—and hope that things would get better—was well rewarded in the film (as I have faith it will be in the dating world). By the time the five ladies and Grigg start actually reading the novels, I rediscovered the ways in which each of them seem to be living the story in the novel (with some modern updates)—and I cared what happened to them. In fact, by the end of the film, my primary concern was that I wanted more—more details of each of their lives. With six major characters, and more if you count their love interests outside the circle, which of course I do, and various incidents from their youth recalled in anecdotal form to other characters, there is simply a lot of plot here. And it’s good, juicy, mostly believable plot. We get snippets of characters that might merit individual novels (movies) of their own.

One point seems to be that the stuff which comprises Austen’s novels—character development and the seemingly banal moves that regular people make—is alive and well right in front of us. It is the reason behind, as Dr. Lynn Batten always says in his Austen seminars, a game we can all play: keeping track of when we first meet a Lady Catherine, an Edward Ferrars, a Mary Crawford. Emma still matches other people and enjoys the feeling of control via Jocelyn. Anne still needs to correct her errors in judgment and rekindle her first love via Prudie. These people still live—on paper, in our lives, and now on screen. But it’s all more intricate than simply Austen characters in Fowler characters. They cross over in the books and in each other’s lives, and Robin Swicord’s vision of that is a joy to watch, once you understand what’s going on.

Even more, watching all this from a soft leather recliner in a special studio theater next to a veritable Austen expert was not unenjoyable, if you’ll pardon an Austen litotes. The other patrons were clearly press and their Janeite guests. We laughed at the same moments, and probably grew quiet and pondering simultaneously as well.

My review would be incomplete without at least a nod to the sexuality of the film; it stars attractive but regular-looking people, and somehow by the multiple-loves scene at the end, the audience feels ready and eager to see these regular people fulfill the passion that has been building, in some of their cases, for years. One might imagine excitement at seeing Hugh Dancy make out with—well, anyone—but most of the characters are just like us—attractive but flawed, both inside and out. Yet I walked out of the film with a vicarious thrill: via six months of reading Austen together, they all find what and who makes them happy; it just looks a bit different than they had thought it would.. A useful lesson for us all, perhaps.

(Republished from Spring/Summer 2007)

Diana Birchall and Natasha Zwick at the Jane Austen Book Club press screening

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Published in: on August 5, 2014 at 11:33 am  Leave a Comment  

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