Lest there be any doubts about the ongoing relevance of the novels of Jane Austen, the charming Jane Austen Book Club
will lay them to rest--with wit, sharp insight, and a wicked chuckle or three. Directed by the talented Robin Swicord, who adapted the book by Karen Joy Fowler (and also wrote the crackling screenplay for the 1994 version of Little Women
), the film is a modern-day comedy of manners, with deeply felt emotions, repressed feelings, unquenched desire and embarrassing relatives--all staples of Austen works. The film centres on a group of six friends in Sacramento, California, who gather to distract themselves from loss (a newly dumped Sylvia, played with grace and quiet pain by Amy Brenneman), repressed disappointment (the prissy teacher Prudie, played by Emily Blunt), or a life of unrealised dreams (Jocelyn, played by Maria Bello, whose acting skills have gained great nuance, both in comedy and drama). All are devoted Austen fans, except the lone man, Grigg (Hugh Dancy, adorable and available, ladies), who has an ulterior motive for joining the chick-lit gang. As the months unfold, we learn about the relationships of all the members, and watch as elements of Austen's novels and characters pop up with enchanting regularity.
There's plenty of pride (Prudie), prejudice (Jocelyn), sense (Sylvia), and sensibility (Sylvia's daughter Allegra, headstrong and reckless in life and love, played by Maggie Grace)--and a fair amount of persuasion (Grigg and Sylvia's caddish ex, Daniel, a smooth Jimmy Smits). As the minuet of relationships and alliances unfolds over the months, the emotions are real and the leavening humour spot-on. About the only thing that doesn't ring true is seeing all these Sacramento women bundled up in shawls, blankets, thick sweaters and extra layers--even in July(!). Still, the film will engage even reluctant Austen readers (if there is such a thing). As Kathy Baker's Bernadette says gaily, "Jane Austen is the perfect antidote to life!" Elizabeth Bennett couldn't have put it better. --A.T. Hurley
Life imitates art in this adaptation of Karen Joy Fowler's bestselling novel about a book group reading the work of Jane Austen. Each of the people in the group is at a different stage of life: there's Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), whose husband has just left her for another woman, and her daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace), who's looking for a woman herself. Bernadette (Kathy Baker) has six marriages under her belt, while Jocelyn's (Maria Bello) most significant relationship is with her dog. New to the group of friends are Prudie (Emily Blunt), a teacher who is unhappy with her marriage, and Grigg (Hugh Dancy), the group's only man--a sci-fi fan invited by Jocelyn to take Sylvia's mind off her failed marriage. As they make their way through Austen's novels, they discover that the writer's work is just as relevant in the 21st century as it was in the 19th. The group has its own Emma, and a sparring would-be couple bears striking resemblance to Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.The Jane Austen Book Club
succeeds largely thanks to the strength of its cast. Bello is better known for dramatic roles in films such as The Cooler
and The History of Violence
, but she does an excellent job with this film's lighter tone. As know-it-all Prudie, Blunt steals just as many scenes as she did in The Devil Wears Prada
. Though it might seem like a clubhouse with a 'No Boys Allowed' sign, the men in the movie hold their own with the female cast. Jimmy Smits, Marc Blucas, and Kevin Zegers play supporting roles, but it's Dancy who deserves the most praise. As Griggs struggles to woo one of the women in the group, Dancy easily wins the heart of the audience with his geeky charm.