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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Review: The Jane Austen Book Club

The Jane Austen Book Club is a surprising movie. At first glance it seems to fit easily with that all-purpose and odiously named sub-genre the “chick flick,” but it has little in common with your average romantic comedy. Instead, this film is more like Woody Allen's relationship movies (albeit not nearly as sharp), in that it's about intelligent people who actually talk – and about actual things - who have believable relationships complicated not by plot devices but by natural conflict, and who read books. What a novel concept.

It begins with two marriages, one of the verge of collapse and the other in the process of collapsing. Daniel (Jimmy Smitts) tells Sylvia (Amy Brenamen) that he's leaving her for another woman after twenty years of marriage. Meanwhile, Prudie (Emily Blunt) has been disappointed by life once more upon discovering that the trip she and husband, Dean (Marc Blucas) were taking to Paris has been unceremoniously cancelled by him so that he can go on a business trip closer to home. Prudie is a high school French teacher who has always dreamed of going to Paris and is devastated by the loss, so much so that she lashes out at a stranger while standing in line to see a film. It is here that she meets Bernadette (Kathy Baker) and they discover a mutual love of Jane Austen. Bernadette invites Prudie to join a book club she's forming in the hope of cheering Sylvia up. Also in the club are Sylvia's daughter, Allegra (Maggie Grace), Sylvia's best friend Jocelyn (Mario Bello) and Grigg (Hugh Dancy), a guy Jocelyn met and seeks to set up with Sylvia, a plan which goes awry when she falls for him herself (shades of Emma).

The group meets once a month with each member responsible for one novel. In between meetings, the drama in their lives hightens. Sylvia tries to get over Daniel, who continues to linger on the edge of her life as if he's still got one foot in the marriage. Prudie's marriage continues to fall apart under the weight of their lack of communication, her problems with her mother (Lynn Redgrave), and her flirtation with one of her students (Kevin Zegers). Allegra begins a relationship with a writer (Parisa Fitz-Henley) who, it turns out, is using her for material. Jocelyn and Grigg fall for each other, despite seeming to have nothing in common – he's younger, has never read Jane Austen before (instead of buying the books individually he buys an anthologized version and is surprised to learn that they aren't a series) and is heavily devoted to science fiction. He gives her some of his favorite books, which she doesn't read because she's a book snob (“When you've actually read them,” he tells her, “I'll be interested in your opinion”). Of the six, only Bernadette gets no life outside of the book club, which may or may not be an intentional commentary on the way that older women get short shrift in Austen's novels, which tend to revolve completely around young lovers.

Discussions grow more heated as the lives of the six begin to mirror the lives of Austen's characters – this is especially true of Jocelyn and Grigg. “Mrs. Dashwood prefers a more well-ordered life,” Jocelyn says during a discussion of Sense and Sensibility. “Maybe that's why she's such a minor character,” Grigg replies. This isn't a rushed relationship, but one that comes to a slow boil, which makes it all the more compelling (as Austen herself well knew).

The performances are all very good, especially that of Blunt who has arguably the most emotionally charged role. The direction by Robin Swicord (who also adapted the screenplay) is unintrusive, and I liked the motif of Allegra literally falling - first by skydiving, second by falling from a rock climbing wall - for her girlfriends, whom she meets in hospitals. The only real problem I have with the film is the ending, which seems far too neat. Of course, Austen's novels always ended with everyone nicely paired up, but it rings a little false here. Other than that, though, this is a perfectly enjoyable film, especially if you like Austen.

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