The Jane Austen Book Club
September 21, 2007
Movie of the Day for Thursday, September 20, 2007
See other Movies of the Day
Literary films are often a hard sell to moviegoers, probably because most viewers don’t want to watch a movie about reading and writing. Let’s face it: these two academic subjects aren’t exactly cinematic. Over the past decade, Hollywood has seen its fair share of films with a literary twist (Wonder Boys, Finding Forrester, Stranger Than Fiction) get mostly ignored at the box office, despite their typically high critical acclaim.
That’s why it’s a moderate financial risk turning Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, The Jane Austen Book Club, into a theatrical movie. Granted, Fowler’s novel was well-received by literary critics and it appeared on the New York Times Bestsellers list, but how many moviegoers have heard of it? It’s not like the title is all that catchy or automatically brings dollars signs to mind.
The story follows six adults from California’s Central Valley - five women and one man - who meet once a month to discuss Jane Austen novels. As they debate the English writer’s six major works -Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion - they soon find their own lives mirroring the plots of the said 18th and 19th century novels.
Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) is a recently divorced mother of three whose husband Daniel (Jimmy Smits) has left her after 32 years of marriage; Joceyln (Maria Bello), who organized the club and remains unmarried, focuses on dog breeding; Prudie (Emily Blunt), a French teacher who’s never actually been to France, has a devoted husband but still finds herself fantasizing about sex with other men; 60-something Bernadette (Kathy Baker), the eldest of the group, uses her age as an excuse to start acting crazy; and the beautiful outsider Allegra (Maggie Grace), Sylvia’s lesbian daughter, has recently left her lover. Grigg (Hugh Dancy), the sole male of the group, is a huge admirer of science fiction and computers, but his single-life has the rest of group questioning his sexuality.
Hopefully writer-director Robin Swicord will be able to turn the strengths of the novel into a worthy cinematic experience, giving those of us unfamiliar with the book a reason to care. The project will mark Swicord's feature-length directing debut, after having adapted the screenplays for Memoirs of a Geisha and Little Women. As a director, she has to keep in mind a book and a movie are two different texts, and therefore require different interpretation for generating pathos, humor and meaning.
Given the cast and the fact that Sony Pictures Classics is handling distribution, it’s clear the movie wasn’t made to be a Hollywood blockbuster, but more of a serious, well-acted dramedy intended to work as a social commentary on love, relationships and everyday irony, much the same way Austen’s novels did. With its multiple storylines, mature cast and genuine conflicts, The Jane Austen Book Club seems destined for strong critical reception, but the audience demographic and low-profile actors’ limited bankability will likely keep it from escaping the trend so many literary films fall victim to at the box office. (Matthew Huntley/BOP)