Jane Austen Book Club, The (2007): Robin Swicord’s Directing Debut

Toronto Film Fest 2007–Robin Swicord, best known for her screenplay adaptations of “Little Women,” and “Memoirs of a Geisha,” makes a feature directorial debut with the right text, The Jane Austen Book Club, based on Karen Joy Fowler’s 2004 best-selling novel of the same title.

A chick flick from a chick lit Jane Austen must be going through some kind of revival in American cinema, TV, and pop culture. Over the past decade, there have been U.K. and American-made movies of her novels, such as Persuasion and Pride & Prejudice, and this season alone, we saw Becoming Jane, a biopic of the young Austen starring Anne Hathaway, and now Swicords film, which premiered at Toronto Film Fest and Sony Classics will release September 21.

What makes Austens work so adaptable and relevant to modern viewers Jane Austens six published books are about the complexities of marriage, friendship, romantic entanglements, class positions, and social manners and mores at the turn of the 1800s. With the exception of a more rigid social hierarchy and pronounced class distinctions, her themes speak to contemporary audiences.

Though confirmed by the studios marketing departments, I think its offensive to describe the above issues as particularly relevant to women, as if men are not preoccupied with (or are above and beyond) courtship, love, and marriage, but thats a subject for a broader sociological discussion.

But within those parameters, theres considerable audience for such femme-driven fare, as was evident with the Oscar nominated Little Women and Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. As in the past, strong critical support and favorable word-of-mouth are crucial variables for putting over this heartfelt tale in the ever-competitive marketplace

Fowlers book, and Swicords skillfully faithful rendition of it, are based on a literary conceit that some critics may find too gimmicky. An attractive ensemble of actresses, who are cast as present-day friends, establish a book club solely devoted to Austen and examine in a serio-comic way the tangled relationships of their lives through the perspective of Austens literary heroines. They just want to escape the harsh reality of their lives only to realize that literature might be more helpful than credited.

This strategy might lead to believe that familiarity with Austens sources is a necessary condition to understand the film, but it is not. However, knowledge of Austens work might increase the joy of watching a film that takes pride in the literary quality of its dialogue. In this respect, Jane Austen Book Club is both an old-fashioned and fresh film, because it has not been done in a while.

Six is the texts organizing principle and magical number. There are six book club members, six Austen books, six interwoven stories, and they take place over a period of six months in modern Sacramento, California’s capital that combines both urban and suburban attributes, thus perfectly fitting as background for the unfolding messy lives.

While the contemporary yarns parallel the Austen plots, with the characters finding similarities, prophecies, warnings and wisdoms about their own journeys in Austens narratives, they also leave some room for individual interpretation. Rather than slavishly imitate the books strands, the sagas are inspired and suggested by them.

Central figure is Bernadette (Kathy Baker), a wise free spirit, who has been married (as you guessed) six times. Single in her 50s, shes a supportive friend, and amazingly calm amidst the turbulent lives around her. Bernadette is also resourceful: Its her idea to congregate her friends in an All-Austen-All-The-Time book club, because, as she says, who better than Jane Austen to cure what ails the world Occasionally, Bernadettes literary remarks reveal wistful hopes that love is not completely out of reachnot yet.

Contrasted with the multi-timed married Bernadette is Jocelyn (Maria Bello), a single woman who claims shes never been really in loveexcept with her champion Rhodesian Ridgeback, Pridey, a faithful companion of a bunch of dogs she breeds on her country ranch. Jocelyns immediate problem is how to come to terms with the grief and void caused by her dogs death; for the funeral, she brings a priest and a cellist. Like Bernadette, she needs a creative outlet, a distraction. Appearances are deceiving as Jocelyn seems fragile, but she could be confident and energetic. When called for, she can be bossy too, and in due time, she becomes the clubs driving engine.

Jocelyns long-time friend Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) shares some past events: The two dated the same guy back in high school, Daniel (Jimmy Smits). A lawyer, Daniel has been married to Sylvia for two decades, and they have three (half than six!) children. Sylvias problem is how to deal with adultery: Informed by her hubby about his love for another woman, a co-worker, Sylvia is devastated and shocked, being unaware of any marital discord. For his part, seeking renewal, Daniel needs a fresh relationship to replace the stale one.

In her twenties, Sylvia and Daniels pretty daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) initially joins the club to support her mom. Both romantically and professionally confused, Allegra has moved back into her home to keep mom company. While sporty (she skydives, kayaks, and climbs rocks) and easy-going, Allegra also has penchant for passion and melodrama. Allegra is one character that couldnt have existed in Austens book–or times. Shes openly and comfortably lesbian, but for now, she decides to conceal her orientation from her mother.

Prudie (played by the almost unrecognizable Emily Blunt, who made an impression in The Devil Wears Prada) is a neurotic high school French teacher whos never been to France. Her issue: how to cope with husband Deans (Marc Blucas) sudden cancellation of their long-waited vacation in Paris due to business conflicts. Handsome and loving, Dean may be too much of a jock, an average Joe, seemingly mismatched for his wifes intellectual and emotional aspirations.

The source of Prudies neediness is her eccentric mother Sky (Lynn Redgrave), an aging, irresponsible hippie pothead that almost drives her vulnerable daughter to a risky affair with a flirtatious high-school senior Trey (Kevin Zegers). (Not to worry, this story line doesnt escalate into the hysterical melodramatics of Notes on a Scandal). When Bernadette accidentally meets Prudie, she immediately recognizes her fragility and neediness, and takes her under her wings, as new member of the book club.

The sixth and final member has the distinction of being a male, Grigg (played by Hugh Dancy, who was the center of the romantic triangle in Evening), a geek techie in his 30s whom Jocelyn meets in the elevator, when her dogs convention uses the same hotel as his sci-fi conference. Listening to her head (but not heart), Jocelyn sees Grigg as potential companion for Sylvia, disregarding the fact that Grigg, despite being shy and self-effacing, is attracted to her.

The tale unfolds as a series of monthly meetings. Each month, the group discusses one of Austens novels at Jocelyns old farmhouse, or Sylvias comfy home. At times, they convene at Griggs new suburban tract house, which is yet another way in which the urbs and burbs blend, rather than conflict, in this movie. Members also congregate at Starbucks caf, in a hospital room, and even outdoors, in a beach outing that honors one of Austens locales.

Episodic and fractured by nature, narrative achieves greater uniformity through its dominant motif. As writer and director, Swicord never lets us forget that Austens work is the meaningful thread running through the femmes intersecting lives. Against this thread, the women play out their sorrows and joys, frustrations but also pleasures, such as the dissolution of Sylvias marriage but also the emergence of her new persona. Other subplots involve Allegras lack of caution in daredevil sports and love; she falls for Corinne (Parisa Fitz-Henley), an aspiring writer.

There are enough dilemmas for various movie viewers to get involved. Prudie must figure out how to be a more mature married person or go for an illicit fling. And new hobbies and literary tastes also emerge during those meetings. The snobbish Jocelyn is initially reluctant to accommodate Grigg and read his literature of choice, Ursula LeGuins sci-fi.

Some of the parallels between the protagonists’ lives and those of Austen’s heroines are forced and obvious, but thats a minor complaint. And as admirably detailed as the characters are, and as sharp as the dialogue is, there is the problem of neat conclusions, of tidying up all narrative strands and messy problems in a sweet yet contrived mode. You cant blame Swicord as she follows Austen to the letter. All of Austens books conclude on happy, harmonious notes, with marriage, friendship, finding ones identity and place in society, and so on.

Swicord has said that she sees her movie as a new millennium, a twenty-first century version of an Austen novel, with club members going through romantic hopes and disappointments, consolations and misunderstandings–the infinite complications of modern life.

Hence, in the midst of divorce, Sylvia has the misfortune of leading the discussion of Austens Mansfield Park, a novel replete with broken alliances, romantic disillusionment, marital discords, and adultery. Sylvia criticizes Patricia Rosemas 1999 movie of Masnfield Park as distorting the original. When Sylvia breaks down in tears during the club discussion, a friend says, Reading Jane Austen is a freaking minefield.

Technically speaking, the production has the proper soft if conventional look, but the movie is not about images, sounds, and effects, but about conversations that are consistently laced with sharp insight and perceptive humor. At one point, a traffic light signals: What would Jane do

Its so rare to see a film with so many crisp delineations of female figures, that whether chick flick or not, Swicord deserves credit for writing parts and casting them with wonderfully modest actresses, such as Brenneman, Blunt, Baker, and Bello.

Cast:

Bernadette – Kathy Baker
Jocelyn – Maria Bello
Prudie – Emily Blunt
Sylvia – Amy Brenneman
Grigg – Hugh Dancy
Allegra – Maggie Grace
Sky – Lynn Redgrave
Daniel – Jimmy Smits
Dean – Marc Blucas
Trey – Kevin Zegers
Corinne – Parisa Fitz-Henley
Samantha – Gwedoline Yeo
Cat – Nancy Travis

Credits

Sony Pictures Classics release of a John Calley/Robin Swicord production in association with Mockingbird Pictures.
Produced by John Calley, Julie Lynn, Diana Napper.
Executive producer: Marshall Rose.
Co-producer: Kelly Thomas.
Directed, written by Robin Swicord, based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler.
Camera: John Toon.
Editor: Maryann Brandon.
Music: Aaron Zigman; music supervisor, Barklie Griggs.
Production designer: Rusty Smith.
Art director: Sebastian Schroder.
Set decorator: Meg Everist.
Costume designer: Johnetta Boone.
Sound: Peter Devlin.

MPAA rating: PG-13.
Running time: 105 Minutes.