Masterpiece’s Death Comes to Pemberley

My mom DVRd this adaptation of P.D. James’ novel, and we both eagerly anticipated watching (and analyzing) it together. Starring Matthew Ehys (Darcy), Anna Maxwell-Martin (Elizabeth), and Matthew Goode (Wickham), this adaptation made me think a lot about the difference between reading words and seeing pictures (I was already on heightened alert after having recently watched Words and Pictures, an intriguing film that explores the poignancy of the written word vs the painted image). There are many moments here that viewers just feel, not based on words but on shared looks or even just proximity.

Seeing the story reminds us more perhaps than the words how different life was for people in this time. For one thing, as my mom mentioned, “it’s so dark there!” Without electric light, even wealthy families like the Darcys are operating in darkness much of the time, and outside, it’s pretty much just the moon as the source of light, which makes nighttime excursions and investigations rather tricky.

We begin with servants (subtitles would have been really helpful), who we hear scream long before we see anything remotely scary, and even then we don’t see what scared the girls (a ghost), just a mysterious tomb, and certainly not a bloody body (in case you’re sensitive to such things). The tomb, of course, turns out to be of great import in the death coming to Pemberley, but no one knows that yet.

The next scene is delightfully light, as young Master Fitzwilliam is running through the house into the arms of Elizabeth. Mrs. Reynolds is busily helping Lizzy prepare for a ball. Elizabeth prepares the butler to serve the best brandy slowly so the ladies can walk to their carriages since there are no more available rooms for people to stay overnight. Darcy is yelling the first time we see him, which he says is normal before a ball. There is palpable chemistry between them, and his yells are soon conquered by his own smiles as he beholds his wife. Georgiana wants the kind of liveliness in marriage that her brother and Elizabeth have.

We meet Bidwell, whom Darcy calls “a good man” and who leaves his problems at home to polish the silver at Pemberley. His son Will has good days and bad. He is borrowing books from Elizabeth, so we know he is intelligent and values her recommendations. When Elizabeth leaves the Bidwell cottage, she sees a woman in purple in the woods, and Elizabeth calls out to her. The woman runs from Elizabeth only to return for her purple bonnet and then to hiss at Elizabeth like a deranged creature. Though Elizabeth understands that this woman is not Mrs. Riley’s ghost, it is important that we know the Riley story to understand just how passionate Darcy is about keeping Wickham’s neck out of the noose, no matter how much he despises him. When Elizabeth and Jane visit the cottage after a death occurs, Lizzy sees what’s really happening with Louisa Bidwell’s baby. Lizzy has a lot of suspicions now; why does Will pretend to be asleep when she visits? And who is Louisa’s baby’s father?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In addition to the usual cast of characters we would expect in such an adaptation (though we never see Bingley and never even hear about Mary or Kitty or the Collinses), we meet Henry Alveston, a lawyer. He and Georgiana greet each other warmly, Georgiana slipping and calling him “Henry” and then correcting herself. During a social engagement, Georgiana asks Alveston to accompany her with her music, and he, adorably, as she once did to Elizabeth, says, “please don’t make me sing.” They have been writing to each other, and that, plus the way they look at each other, communicates immediately that they should be together if he’s a good guy, which appearances suggest he is. Colonel Fitzwilliam, however, would have it otherwise. Also interested in marrying Georgiana, he constantly finds fault with the polite younger man, who advocates not so much for himself as for Georgiana’s right to happiness and to make her own choices. All three—Elizabeth, Darcy, and Colonel Fitzwilliam—see Georgiana’s interest in Henry, but only Elizabeth seems determined to let Georgiana marry for love.

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet arrive for the ball (Mr. Bennet entranced by the library once he arrives at Pemberley), and by the time hysterical Lydia comes rushing in announcing there have been gun shots and Mrs. Bennet falls into hysterics, Mr. Bennet desperately wants to go with the rest of the men looking for Wickham and Denny. His one word to Darcy is said in such a tone that everything he is feeling is communicated: “please.” Darcy understands immediately; who wouldn’t? Mr. Bennet thus accompanies Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam on the search for the missing men, leaving Elizabeth to calm the hysterical women of her family.

The writer and director juxtapose several key scenes effectively. When the characters learn, for instance, that Denny was hit hard in two places, we can see Darcy thinking. The next scene has Elizabeth similarly thinking, watching Colonel Fitzwilliam burn a letter. They’re both analyzing what they’re seeing—and trying to understand what they are not seeing. The stresses of the murder, the guests, and the enormous pressures of managing this estate seem unbearable, but then Darcy and Elizabeth hug, and somehow we feel everything will work out right. At one point, we see Louisa carving a heart into a tree and crying. In the next scene, the magistrate sees the heart. Then we go to Jane comforting Elizabeth in bed about Elizabeth’s own heartache. The very placement of small scenes heightens the effect of each.

Sir Selwyn Hardcastle is the magistrate to whom Darcy reports the incident. He finds himself having to defend his father’s hope in Wickham to Hardcastle, and Mrs. Reynolds doesn’t like the Hardcastles, as she demonstrates by looking away from him after he gives her a command and looking to Mrs. Darcy for orders. It turns out that Hardcastle’s father has done a pretty horrible thing (prosecuting a little boy who poached something, resulting in the boy being hanged), but Hardcastle himself, though we don’t ever really like him, knows what it is to fight the shadow of a family name. That theme the film visits several times, including through Georgiana, who feels pressure to marry Colonel Fitzwilliam not just from her brother but even more from her own sense of duty to her family name and responsibility. The shame from the Darcy ancestor buried in the woods is one of neglecting duty. Darcy won’t even discuss it with Lizzy, but Georgiana does: “Here lies the man who put personal inclination before public duty.”

That tension is very much alive in the current generation of Darcys since, after all, Darcy chose to marry for love, and now Georgiana wants to do the same. After the scandal erupts, and Darcy seems more inclined to push a respectable known entity on his sister, Lizzy questions him, “Security? What about happiness?” Even when Darcy is snippety and says that Georgiana should not make a decision in “sentimental haste,” Elizabeth does not back down. She does, however, think Darcy is regretting his own “sentimental haste” in marrying her. Georgiana is the one who comes to comfort Lydia when Wickham is taken away, and it’s a beautiful moment for her, as she uses her own past suffering to support someone who also suffered because of Wickham.

The real tension, arguably, of the film, comes from the strain on the marriage. Even after six years, it seems neither Darcy nor Elizabeth is completely sure of the other’s love. Lydia casts doubt in Darcy’s mind: Lizzy married him for money. Lizzy’s own doubts result largely from the shame her family is still brining Darcy and from her memories of people being so judgmental when Darcy first married her. Lydia is, in most of her appearances, morally repugnant. She wipes away fake tears, and fakes almost passing out on Darcy’s arm as he walks her down the row in church. He tells Lizzy this is “intolerable.” Then Lizzy tries to hold his hand, but he pulls away. Even the viewer might be inclined to see Darcy’s behavior as regret for the marriage, though Jane wisely reminds Elizabeth (at the start of Part 2, after Elizabeth reflects on Darcy’s awful proposal, feels insecure about Darcy, and tells Jane he “regrets his match” to her) that love like hers and Darcy’s doesn’t waver. (My mom, one of four sisters, loved how the sisters helped and supported each other throughout the story, including Lizzy and Georgiana.) Much of the time, we’re not so sure, but just when we think we can’t take it anymore, Darcy covers Elizabeth up while she’s sleeping so at least we, even if not yet she, know he loves her still.

Darcy keeps trying to protect Wickham, saying he isn’t violent. He doesn’t want another innocent person hanged, even if he hates the guy. That’s not to say Wickham has been redeemed; he’s still an ass. We see Colonel Fitzwilliam get really angry about how many people Wickham has put in danger and how he has jeopardized Darcy’s reputation (even if it turns out he’s actually worried about Georgiana’s). He lies. (ex: Henry, who is trying to help Wickham, asks a good question: why did Denny run into the woods? Wickham’s answer doesn’t add up.) But Darcy is pretty sure Wickham didn’t murder his best friend. Part 1 ends with Darcy visiting Wickham in jail. Both men remember the hanging of young Patrick Riley, a traumatic experience for both young boys to witness. Wickham is leaning against a counter, and Darcy goes and stands next to him, and Wickham says, “I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life, but not this,” looking in Darcy’s eyes, and Darcy says, “I believe you.” Visually and emotionally and verbally, this is a beautiful moment between the men.

Part 2 develops the doubt between Darcy and Elizabeth, but also adds to it several other tensions and conflicts. Poor Jane takes Lydia and Mrs. Bennet with her to Highmarten, so at least that’s some pressure off the Darcys, but by the time Elizabeth and Georgiana have their big confrontation, Darcy and Elizabeth are hardly speaking, which creates far worse tension than the actual inquest for viewers who care more about them than about Wickham.

Nonetheless, if this is justice, I can hardly imagine injustice. The jury is drunk and incomplete. When witnesses are called up, people cheer them on. “OMG,” my mom said, horrified by their conduct. When Mr. Pratt milks the crowd for his own glory, my mom cried out, “They’re clapping! This is horrible!” Then they boo Wickham, whom they call a “liar!” But my mom really had trouble with the man in charge asking the jurors to retire to decide Wickham’s fate, “preferably not to the bar.” She couldn’t even finish the sentence: “They can drink and then—that’s so unfair!” Darcy really needs help, and when he arrives at the inquest, Henry Alveston is there, offering support—and seats—after Georgiana has rejected him. He calls Darcy “Sir.” Darcy must, I thought, see how good this guy is. They even both wear beige overcoats. The courtroom scene is as awful as the inquest, so much so that respectable Alveston bursts out in protest when the prosecutor is obviously unfair. Only Alveston maintains some faith in justice. Wickham has to be judged on the evidence alone. Seeing Wickham’s face when Darcy explains he did not think Wickham’s “confession” meant Wickham actually did the killing was a moving experience.

The film makes frequent use of flashback scenes, first from Elizabeth’s point of view, but later from Darcy’s and even from Wickham’s (still thinking about Louisa when he is imprisoned after the inquest). The moment when Darcy sees the mysterious woman in court is so eerie, and then immediately we’re in a flashback when he asked her for Wickham’s whereabouts after he absconded with Lydia the first time, so we know exactly who she is before her name is said. Or at least we know her name—her actual identity she explains to Darcy when he follows her outside. Darcy runs after Mrs. Younge before she throws herself in front of a carriage, and his cry “no!” is so emotional. The music changes, and everything slows down to emphasize his grief and the hat that now we understand. When Darcy goes to Wickham to tell him what happened and to comfort him, I thought again, this is a man.

Lady Catherine makes a delightful appearance (delightful to us, that is, not to anyone else). Elizabeth says “how intriguing” and “delightful” in response to her now aunt’s ridiculous comments, but this Lady Catherine is clueless that she is being mocked, which seemed inconsistent with what we know of her from the text.

Meanwhile, Colonel Fitzwilliam is being so insensitive to Georgiana. When he takes her hand, she looks so uncomfortable. How can he do this when he sees her face? But it isn’t until Colonel Fitzwilliam admits to trying to shield his future bride from “further taint,” adding that even if Wickham hangs, he “will take her,” that Darcy realizes how dangerously close he was to allowing his beloved sister to make a terrible mistake. Instead, he goes to her, asking her please to “marry for love” and “when [she has] that person” not to “doubt” him. In a sweeping shot, we see Elizabeth appear on the stairway, and now Darcy tells Elizabeth how sorry he is for doubting her and her judgment; in a beautiful scene between them, my mom said, “Whoa. They actually took his jacket off. I’ve never seen this in Jane Austen.”

Indeed. After their reunion (spoiler alert: more than a jacket comes off), Darcy asks Elizabeth to tell Lydia about the affair, but it turns out that Lydia is a lot smarter than we give her credit for being. She has learned how to live in her marital situation, and that does not include hearing details she will not be able to forget. The real concern, then, shifts to Wickham’s guilty sentence. We know he is innocent, but who did it, and how can someone prove it? Elizabeth figures it out, and gets the real story. My mom said: “I had no idea it would be him.” The father-son joint apology made me cry.

With no time to spare, Elizabeth runs up to the gallows and stops it with the judge. We are so sad for the other poor souls dying that way, but the relief on Darcy and Wickham’s faces was so touching. I loved that after everything Wickham has done to Darcy, it is still Darcy who goes to his side, relieved he has been spared.
And then, back the story shifts to images of love, first Georgiana and Henry kissing on the grounds. “Oh, those early moments of love,” the more seasoned Darcys reminisce. They are soon followed by sheer joy with a happy announcement on Pemberley lawn, and the last images are of Darcy swinging master Fitzwilliam around and Lizzy’s happy face. A truly happy ending!

Published in: on November 16, 2014 at 6:07 pm  Comments (1)  

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

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

The Filming of The Jane Austen Book Club

The Filming of The Jane Austen Book Club, (through the eyes of a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant historian), republished from Winter 2006

When Claire Bellanti first asked me to represent JASNA at a day of filming of The Jane Austen Book Club, I was quite excited and honored. True, I’ve grown up in the City of Angels, have indeed seen movie stars in person, have indeed attended movie premieres with the red carpet deal, and am even indeed related by blood to people who have accepted Academy Awards on national television for their work in movies. I had not, however, attended an actual filming, walked around the set with the director and producer and one of the stars, or represented a literary society. These were new experiences for me.

All week prior to our special day, Diana (the other JASNA rep) and I were sent several e-mails, with information about the location, the scenes being filmed that day and time, cell phone contacts once we arrived, and the basic plan. In preparation, I reread chapter 1, which includes the book club scene we were to witness in the making, made special preparations to leave work a bit early, and planned my outfit (you know, in case they needed an extra to play Hugh Dancy’s love interest). Two nights before filming, I read the guest list for the scene we were to watch: it read The Jane Austen Society and The New York Times. Giddy, I packed my camera and my notepad and prepared to join the elite reporters in my responsibilities as Features Writer for our local journal.

Things didn’t go as smoothly as I might have hoped. There was a fire on the 405, so what would have been a 30-40 minute commute from work instead took nearly 90. I showed up late, found a seemingly deserted parking lot, and jumped out, hoping someone would find me. Someone did. Though my mommy has told me never to do such things, I willingly got into this unfamiliar man’s truck as he communicated with someone else on a radio. I heard him say “Jane Austen Society,” so I figured I was safe. He mentioned that my friend was already here (yay for Diana). I got deposited in a less remote area in the wilderness with three men who were probably keepers of the trailers. We made chit chat, but there was a concern that I wouldn’t be able to enter the set now without disrupting the scene. They called the press rep, who told them where to send me, and I—very quietly—trudged through wet grass to appear on set—just as a scene was about to be redone.

It was cold and gloomy, and I had left my jacket in the car because it didn’t seem chic.

I was very happy, needless to say, to see Diana, and my luck began to change. She introduced me to the press rep, who was also new to the scene, and very soon after that, we met the director, Robin Swicord, who had also adapted the novel for the big screen. Robin’s tee-shirt made me laugh; it read “You have my continuous partial attention.” I could easily wear that to work on faculty meeting days. She was warm and friendly, coming closer when she learned who we were, and even hugging us.

We then met John Calley, the producer. I have to be honest here: I had never heard of these people. But Diana seemed as excited as I would have been if Colin Firth or Jeremy Northam were on set, so I played along, understanding that meeting this man was a big deal and that his friendliness, warmth, and insistence that we stop apologizing for taking up too much of his time with our questions and photos, reflected true generosity. I could understand, to some limited degree, Diana’s glee.

The set, the Disney Ranch, where Little House on the Prairie, among other shows, was filmed, was rustic. The scene we watched took place on Jocelyn’s porch, during the reading group’s first meeting, to discuss Emma. There were two screens set up for us to watch inside the cottage, or we could watch the scene live outside. We did both (the scene was filmed several times). We walked through “Jocelyn’s bedroom” where a later scene would be filmed, and all around the set, making sure to do so silently during filming. There were a LOT of people besides the actors and aforementioned leaders there—setting everything up and then watching to make sure everything went as planned. I learned that, when the scene is about to film, one person yells “roll,” and everyone echoes back “rolling,” which was an easy cue to follow to be quiet. We saw the storyboards for the scene, and people explained to us that the scene had to be filmed multiple times because they were capturing it from multiple angles.

So it was an exciting afternoon, yes; but the best part of it was the treatment we received from everyone with whom we came into contact. We were the expert Janeites, there to offer support for a project that is likely being made because there are people like us to share Jane with the masses (or at least, as close to the masses as any of us are likely to get any time soon). We were offered food and drink, seats, and kindness. I felt how important it is to be a leader in an organization such as this.

For Diana, the most exciting celebrities were likely John Calley and Robin Swicord. For me, the most exciting celebrity came at the end in the form of one of the actresses, Maggie Grace, who asked to speak with us when her scene was over. Maggie is a young star, most notably (for me, anyway, since I have a younger brother who follows these things) for her work in Lost, and an avid Jane Austen reader. She shared with Diana and me her experiences with Austen, and her meeting of Colin Firth (she was so tongue-tied she could hardly speak, which makes me think twice of my desire to ask him to attend our next event). She was very excited to learn that the author of a book she had discovered in Santa Monica was, in fact, Diana, and the three of us shared a chuckle over that coincidence. And she graciously welcomed us to take some pictures (which we had earlier been asked to refrain from) with her. Maggie rode back with me and Diana in the van to our cars (well, Maggie, to the costumes area), and I found it a delightful conclusion to our Hollywood visit.

If only she could have introduced me to Hugh, the afternoon could have been absolutely perfect.


P.S.from Diana: It was such an exciting afternoon, exactly as Natasha describes! I was particularly delighted that the filming took place on the Golden Oak Ranch owned by the Disney Studios in Placerita Canyon, for that’s one of the last surviving movie ranches, and not open to the public. On the site of an 1840s gold strike, the ranch was bought by Disney in the 1950s for the filming of Spin and Marty, and the place is rich in film history, as well as being a beautiful setting of golden foothills and live oak trees, with a real old West feel; you can imagine how the area looked decades ago. I knew I’d come to the right place when I made the turnoff onto the country road and saw a handmade “JANE” sign tacked to a tree. As Natasha recounts, we were given the V.I.P. treatment. And she’s right, I was particularly thrilled to meet the director Robin Swicord, whom I’ve admired ever since seeing her brilliant adaptation of Little Women (the 1994 Winona Ryder version), and the legendary producer John Calley (Da Vinci Code, Remains of the Day, the Cincinnati Kid, The Americanization of Emily, Catch-22). Both were incredibly down-to-earth and gracious to us and felt like old friends by the end of the day. Calley, though an elderly man, ran spryly around the set in blue jeans and at one point said puckishly that he wished he had a T-shirt that said “Jane Austen Gave Me the Clap.” Robin looked at us anxiously at that, but we all burst out laughing. I have written up my version of these adventures for the Spring issue of JASNA News, but the conclusion of both my account and Natasha’s is definitely that we wish you could all have been there with us!

Published in: on July 27, 2014 at 6:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

Scents and Sensibility

Some of these modern film versions are so badly acted or so dumbed down that they feel insulting to watch. Though I can’t imagine this one winning any awards, my mom and I enjoyed watching this 2011 interpretation in which Mr. Dashwood goes to prison (a 75-year sentence seemed extreme; don’t murderers get less than that?) for his role in a Ponzi scheme, leaving his wife and three daughters to fend for themselves.

Oldest daughters Elinor and Marianne try to find work to help pay for medicine for Margaret, who has a treatable form of leukemia that costs 3000 dollars a month after health insurance. (Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret go to stay with Aunt Charlotte.)  Elinor can’t get a job because of her last name, and Marianne because she has no experience doing anything (she just graduated from college with a degree in English :-). In a desperate moment, Elinor applies to work as a “custodial technician” for a spa, and a self-interested girl named Lucy persuades the mean boss (Fran) to give her a chance. Marianne gets a much more comfortable job (making photocopies) by lying about her last name.

Elinor, true to her practical nature, sells their flat screen to buy a truck so they can get to their jobs after the FBI confiscates the family cars. Marianne, true to her trusting romantic nature, believes her scuzzy boyfriend John (Willoughby) when, after her father’s scandal, he says he’s going to Switzerland for work. She finds solace in making fragrant lotions from flowers and in correcting grammar errors (because she appreciates the written word).

Marianne meets Brandon when he saves her from messing up her first copy job. He’s kind of a jerk about an editing mistake she tried to correct, but he quickly apologizes and turns out to be the nice guy we expect. This Marianne is more together than her prototype, accepting the betrayal of the man she loves and doing her best to move on. Lawyer Edward is Fran’s sister. He meets Elinor when she’s singing while scrubbing a bathroom. On their second meeting, they agree not to hold each other responsible for their families.  (Both heroes take a cue from Mr. Darcy, I think, Brandon in the value of a second or a third impression and Edward in not assuming a man is arrogant because a louder member of his family is.)

As you would expect from the opening sequence and the title, the lotion plays an important role when clients at the spa ask Elinor for more and more of her sister’s healing potions (Mrs. Jennings, a gossip, spreads the word about the lotions), when Elinor’s boss sends her on horrible errands so Lucy can steal the lotion, when the lotion theft doesn’t yield the results Fran wants, and when Fran blackmails John to get the secret of the lotion or she will reveal what happened with Eliza Williams to his family, who will disinherit him.

From there, a series of betrayals and recoveries conveys the film’s theme that human decency requires taking personal responsibility. Our four protagonists do that in several ways, even, in a delightful scene, all working together to secure the future of the Dashwood women. It is fun to watch.


Published in: on February 2, 2014 at 5:46 pm  Comments (1)  

Austenland (the movie)


My mom, my dear friend Andrea, and her mom Barbara ventured out last Sunday to one of two theaters in Los Angeles currently showing Austenland, the latest adaptation of a Jane Austen fanfiction text that I reviewed about four years ago. To my delight (and their surprise), there were many men in the theater (even at least one not obviously accompanied by a woman). All four of us, one a declared fanofJane, one a normal fan (who has read several of the books), and two always willing to see a fun movie, enjoyed it (though perhaps I did most of all :-)). It is perhaps best known outside Jane circles for having Stephanie Meyer as one of its producers (Gina Mingacci is the other), but since I haven’t read the Twilight books or seen any of the movies, I wasn’t sure how to analyze her involvement’s effect on the adaptation of the book (by Sharon Hale) I once found delightful.

This adaptation, directed by Jerusha Hess, does several things well. The acting is delightful. I was thrilled to see Mr. Tilney (J.J. Feild) playing the stuffy nephew of the resort owner, and a scruffy Irishman (Bret McKenzie, who’s actually from New Zealand) plays the tempting outdoorsman who is his primary competitor. Jennifer Coolidge (you know her, or at least you would as soon as you saw her picture) is hilarious. As Barb and I agreed afterward, everything out of her mouth is funny, and it’s not just a result of great writing. Keri Russell plays a compelling heroine, a little over the top in terms of her Pride and Prejudice obsession (a cut-out Colin Firth resides in her apartment and seems to garner more attention than a live date does. She also would rather watch the BBC adaptation than make out with said date) but incredibly frustrated with what real life seems to throw her way over and over again.  Any film that has Ricky Whittle shirtless so frequently offers treasures that simply don’t require good story-telling or wit, though this film has both.

It’s also unpredictable. We’re hoping, of course, that our heroine ends up with true love at the end of the movie, but which of the potential suitors it will be was so ambiguous that my mom and I actually disagreed about who it would be (yes, we whisper to each other during movies, which I’m sure is not thrilling for other people, but we try to keep it to a minimum). The quiet heroism we hope to see happens here in surprising places, and seeing the heroine’s face as she realizes what has actually been happening is a delight.

Though usually I’d be upset to see someone who loves Jane Austen come to the realization that a Jane Austen-themed bedroom in a thirty-something’s home is hardly conducive to a healthy lifestyle unless you’re Cassandra, in this particular case, maybe the heroine frees the bedroom from trappings of movie life so she can actually live not only a Jane Austen happy ending—but also her own (and, cleverly phrased in the movie—her man’s).

If nothing else makes you want to take the chance and see (or at least rent or stream) it, the total time is 97 minutes, which, in a world where movies often require over two hours of our lives only to depress us about the human condition, seems a relatively short amount of time to give to imagining what life would be like in a land of Regency manners but indoor plumbing.

Published in: on August 22, 2013 at 5:52 pm  Comments (2)  

12 Men of Christmas

I ordered this film on Netflix because I’ve been a fan of Kristin Chenoweth since her days as Glinda in Wicked. It wasn’t long, however, before I got a familiar feeling. EJ Baxter (Elizabeth Bennet) has taken a job far away from home. She is immediately befriended by a woman, Jan Lucas (Jane and Charlotte), with whom she’ll be working, and who seems to be trying to flirt with an equally nice, shy guy, Eric (Bingley). That guy has a friend whom everyone assumes to be arrogant, but who, of course, is quite handsome and actually, the most generous and principled guy in town. EJ and Will (how did I not catch the name when he first appeared?) spar almost immediately. Will has an ex-friend, Jason (Wickham), who tells EJ, whom he sort of dates, that Will made sure he didn’t get a good job. We sense this guy is no good but can’t figure out why. Meanwhile, Will, for reasons we don’t understand, discourages Eric from asking Jan out.

At that point, I did a quick google search to see if my fellow Janeites knew about the movie, and I was not surprised to learn that many do. Why I had not heard of it in the Jane Austen context I cannot say.

Though I was bothered that EJ is so mean to Will (even snarkily telling him, when he refuses to participate in her calendar, “You’re the one I threw away”), this was a fun one, with delights only this exact retelling could manage (such as  Jason taking EJ/Glinda to “The Wizard of Oz” and their discussing the witch. HA).

I had fun putting the pieces together. SPOIL ALERT: The abseiling party Jason skips is the Netherfield Ball! The big dance with Darcy becomes abseiling with Will. In a critical moment outside, Will rescues her, not from Collins, but from the mountain, and she looks at him differently. A botched attempt (the first proposal) to express his feelings—which he has repressed without success—angers her, however, and it seems as though anger will be their dominant emotion again.

But when her calendar—the primary strategy she’s developed to raise money for the much-needed Search and Rescue team—falls short by one man, Will appears to save the day. He’s shirtless, which can’t hurt nurture something resembling affection in the softening EJ.

This movie is corny—and a lot of fun anyway.

Published in: on February 5, 2012 at 6:34 pm  Comments (1)  

From Prada to Nada

It isn’t Sense and Sensibility, and it isn’t modern filmmaking at its very finest, but it’s a fun 107 minutes, even if it felt longer at times.

The opening sequence is choppy and awkward. If you don’t have a headache by the time you finally meet the Dominguez sisters, you might get one from being irritated at their being portrayed as such extremes (e.g. Trendy, superficial Mary makes a nasty comment early on about her sister Nora having never been kissed; studious Nora seems to think nothing of her car bumping into her sister’s on her way home from the library). The film often felt over-handed (even the music, which begins as English lyrics and segues into Spanish when the girls move to East LA, start to learn Spanish, and feel less physically threatened by their amazingly eloquent, soft-spoken, tattooed neighbors. I was conscious while it was happening that several of the details should have emotionally moved me (the girls lose their dad far too young and without warning, and they tease him about his mustache), but I didn’t feel the emotional punch because the characters and their lives did not seem believable during those key first 10 minutes.

That’s not all. Events happen too quickly (one moment, Mary is at death’s door, and the next some candle-wax restores her to life?) and too illogically (how is the Prada purse the aunt sells the car-buyer not filled with Mary’s stuff, and why is the aunt pocketing all that cash and cackling like some sort of witch?). By contrast, the legal triumph moves a little TOO quickly, as does the transformation of the girls into Beverly Hills Americans of Mexican heritage to East LA home girls with Spanish accents who think themselves Mexican-American.

How does it turn out that LA girls with Spanish-speaking servants, father, and aunt speak NO Spanish?

There are many deviations from the book, as you would expect from a modern Latina remake, some comfortable (Gabriel Jr’s leaving his horrible “Fanny Dashwood,” “Willoughby” being married) and some really not (why’d they get rid of the mom? Margaret? John Dashwood? Why does only the Edward character keep his Austen name?).

Some plot lines were left unfinished: the Willoughby character never tells the Elinor one how miserable he is; Colonel Brandon is already super hot, so it’s hard to understand why she doesn’t go for him in the first place—kudos to Wilmer Valderrama; we never see what happens to the Lucy Steele character, who has no funny stupid sister and isn’t funny herself and has no relationship with the Elinor one; likewise, Edward has no brother who inherits the family fortune, so Elinor never has to choose; and we never get to see the horrible Fanny character take a plunge into misery of her own making. Does Nora go back to law school? Did she somehow leap from classes to legal exec because she marries well? What happens to Mary’s eating habits? She’s still wearing the revealing dresses by movie’s end: did she learn to manage carbs despite her deep fears that being poor would lead to more pounds and less Prada?

Despite these flaws, the film became more enjoyable to watch as the characters became less extreme and thus we started to care what happened to them, and to the nice gentlemen whose hearts they snagged. I’m glad I saw it, and that it ended as it did (though maybe a few minutes earlier would have been nice).

Published in: on February 6, 2011 at 4:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy, 2003

Pride and Prejudice, 2003 film, dir. Andrew Black

I owe these 104 minutes of fascination to one of my students, who thought I might enjoy this film adaptation of our beloved Austen novel. The twist: it’s set in Mormon Utah, and though the characters never explicitly refer to Mormonism, there are several references to church and prayer, and it is clear that none of them expect to have sex outside of marriage. The characters sometimes do immoral things, but they’re never truly beyond the pale. In short, a rather perfect set-up for bringing Austen to the modern world.

Our heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, is an aspiring writer who lives with her roommate, Jane, a Spanish-accented beauty, and near a ditzy landlord, Lydia and Lydia’s even more idle and ignorant little sister, Kitty. (Writing functions here as pianoforte/singing functions in the novel.) Mary makes several embarrassing appearances, and she lands Collins, a rather ridiculous preacher, in lieu of Charlotte, whom we see (I think) just once, buying a “how to land a man” book that has taken bookshelves by storm (The Pink Bible). Wickham is a crime-committer, but not nearly on the scale that he is in the book, and Bingley knows Hebrew roots of names. Darcy and his sister are properly British and compelling. Caroline Bingley seems more evil than Wickham here, but even she doesn’t directly commit a crime; she misleads, rather than lies to, Elizabeth, but the effects could be as disastrous.

My biggest complaint: no adults! I really missed Mr. Bennet’s dry wit, and I even occasionally longed for an annoying Mrs. Bennet comment. She is referred to, but never makes an appearance. Same for Lady Catherine, the Gardiners, and the Phillipses. Some of the novel’s greatest humor comes from these characters (bad enough that we already have to lose the narrator’s voice in film form, but to eliminate these, too? It’s too much!).

Otherwise, a fun, LDS-style Pride and Prejudice with some clever parallels to the book.

Published in: on May 16, 2010 at 5:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

Jane Austen Book Club filming


Published in: on May 20, 2009 at 8:18 pm  Leave a Comment