The Jane Austen Book Club
The Jane Austen Book Club is the sort of movie that had saccharine tummy ache written all over it. Thankfully, I realized early on that I had nothing to fear. The Jane Austen Book Club is both a testament to Austen’s continued relevance and a fine example of classroom particulars converted into entertaining banter without losing any of its oomph.
Next to Shakespeare, Jane Austen is the most beloved author in Great Britain. Though she wrote only six novels, her influence on literature is staggering. Cinematically, more than a dozen adaptations of her works have been put on screen in the last 20 years, many to massive acclaim. Her novels examine the complexities of friendship and marriage, romantic entanglements, class positions, and social mores in the early 1800s. What makes her work so enduring is that, despite the changes in our social hierarchy and class distinctions, her themes are vibrantly contemporary.
If you don’t believe that, you need to meet the members of the Jane Austen Book Club. Here, modern Los Angeles stands in for Austen’s England. Six people come together to find refuge from their maddening 21st century lives in Austen’s books. As you might guess, their circumstances echo Austen’s creations with surprising coincidence.
There’s Bernadette (Kathy Baker), the oft-married free spirit who sets up the club in an effort to have “all-Austen-all-the-time.” There’s Jocelyn (Maria Bello), who is so interested in setting up her friends that she can’t acknowledge her own romance when it’s staring her in the face. There’s Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), happily married without a care in the world until the day her husband Daniel (Jimmy Smits) tells her he’s leaving her for another woman. There’s Sylvia’s lesbian daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace), who has the worst romantic luck and is only in the club to support her mother. There’s Prudie (Emily Blunt), the bookish high school teacher married to an insensitive jock and flirting with the idea of having an affair with one of her students. And there’s Grigg (Hugh Dancy), a cute techy guy who falls in love with a member of the group and gets Austen intuitively despite his nose normally being buried in science fiction novels.
Each is assigned a novel to host at their monthly get-togethers and we watch as they unpack Austen, unaware (except to the audience) that what they are really doing is unpacking their own lives. Ultimately, they find answers to their contemporary quandaries on the pages of their Austen novels. One clever moment shows one of the characters in the midst of a moral dilemma looking at a traffic signal that flashes, “What Would Jane Do?”
Robin Swicord, the screenwriter of Memoirs of a Geisha and the enchanting Little Women slides behind the camera for the first time in this sometimes sappy but no less satisfying film that works because its material (the film is based on the popular novel of the same name by Karen Joy Fowler) is intelligent and so is the terrific ensemble cast.
The script bites at the necessary places and brims with insight. You do not have to be an Austen aficionado to enjoy the film, though you will, arguably, come away with a richer experience. The script never feels weighted down with academia, though it is saturated with exactly the sort of rich and intelligent conversation one might expect at a book club of this nature. The dialogue may not be entirely believable but it works. These are not the conversations people have, they’re the ones we wish we had.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that in the end everyone ends up happy. Any purveyor of Austen knows she likes to end her novels with neat bows and usually throws in a wedding or two. The question is not if the couple will live happily ever after, it’s how they will overcome the obstacles to get there. The journey, not the destination, is the thing for Austen, and this film.
The Jane Austen Book Club is not a chick flick — it’s a human flick.