Life, love and literature

The Jane Austen Book Club

on September 21, 2007 by Wade Major
It's fitting that Karen Joy Fowler's novel The Jane Austen Book Club should finally make its leap to the big screen—as in Austen's own novels, there's an emotional symbiosis at work in the written word that almost screams to be translated into cinema. It's also a natural transition—what with each of Austen's six novels having been adapted multiple times for film and television, and this year's earlier Becoming Jane casting a light on Austen herself, it was simply a matter of time before Austen's present-day admirers received their share of the limelight.

After suffering a series of bruising hits in their personal and professional lives, a group of five women and one man gather to read and discuss each of Austen's novels. It's a form of therapy but also an escape, a way of projecting themselves into an idealized view of human relationships with which they hope to be able to emerge better, stronger and more balanced individuals. At the behest of Bernadette (Kathy Baker), a middle-aged free spirit with an unabashed passion for life and husbands, a book club is formed, bringing together dog breeder Jocelyn (Maria Bello), a somewhat cynical sort who generally prefers canines to the company of men; Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), an emotional wreck of a housewife who's just lost her husband (Jimmy Smits) to another woman; Sylvia's young, gay, reckless and romantically naïve daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace); Prudie (Emily Blunt), a bright but insecure young French teacher stuck in a fragile and crumbling marriage; and Grigg (Hugh Dancy), an earnest young entrepreneur who seems to have a thing for Jocelyn.

That Austen's 200-year-old Regency Era novels still have resonance today has never been in doubt, evidenced by such contemporary film adaptations as Clueless , which essentially transports Emma into a high school, and Bride and Prejudice , a Bollywood variation on Pride and Prejudice . But The Jane Austen Book Club has more on its mind than facile comparisons. The key point here isn't that the characters end up paralleling storylines from Austen's novels; it's that through engagement with great works of literature, that by wrestling over their meaning, their relevance and importance, a person enters a new state of mind—a more genteel state of mind—thereby enabling a more stable approach to life. That's a far cry from what average “chick flick” audiences may be anticipating, though it's bound to be more satisfying for both men and women who treat themselves to it.

It's also a smart and auspicious directing debut for veteran screenwriter Robin Swicord, no stranger to literary adaptations with Memoirs of a Geisha , Little Women and Matilda to her credit. Swicord's wisest move of all, however, is to simply trust in her cast, exacting a sextet of performances so perfectly pitched and flawlessly balanced that it easily overcomes a momentarily shaky beginning and handful of otherwise minor missteps.

While critical attention will most likely land on the increasingly impressive Blunt—elevating her star status after her acclaimed work in The Devil Wears Prada —it's Dancy, in his second consecutive ensemble-actress film after the summer's earlier Evening , who holds the film's emotional tapestry together, fusing empathy and awkwardness in a manner that is so altogether new and refreshing it's a wonder everyone else in the group doesn't fall instantly and madly in love with him.
Distributor: Sony Classics
Cast: Emily Blunt, Maria Bello, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman, Maggie Grace, Jimmy Smits and Hugh Dancy
Director/Screenwriter: Robin Swicord
Producers: John Calley, Julie Lynn and Diana Napper
Genre: Drama
Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content, brief strong language and some drug use
Running time: 106 min.
Release date: September 21, 2007 NY/LA
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