Tuesday, March 25, 2008
The Jane Austen Book Club sneaks up on you like one of the heroes in Austen's novels: at first, it seems slightly off-putting, puffed up and full of its own goodness, but little by little, it reveals itself to be charming, earnest and trustworthy in all the best ways. Based on Karen Jay Fowler's bestselling 2004 novel, the film tells the story of six people (five women and one man) who gather every month to read and discuss one of Austen's books, as their lives create parallels with the texts that are, by turns, eerie, funny, sweet, sad and thuddingly obvious. The movie loses some of the psychological texture from the book-- it lacks the ominscience of the book's narrator, and I sometimes missed the more melancholy character details and quiet regrets that the characters register on the page. But it gains immeasurably from the fine cast, who humanize and flesh out Fowler's typage and Austen pastiches into something far more believable and loveable. There are some well-known names in the film (Mario Bello, Jimmy Smits, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman and Emily Blunt), but the casting feels organic rather than commercially driven, and none of the stars is big enough to overshadow the enjoyable dynamic across the whole ensemble. Particular mention should be made of Hugh Dancy as Grigg, the sci-fi reader whose geeky exterior masks a soulful intellgence, and Emily Blunt, the pretentious, French-spouting high school teacher who uses her Franophilia as a mask to hide her damaged heart; both of these actors take potentially hazardous stereotypes and make them real, imbuing their characters with tremendous grace until they are the most empathetic characters in the film. But this is not to overlook the fine work by Smits (in an underwritten role, but one with a winning denouement), Baker (who takes the film's "wacky" role and grounds it in the detail of age and experience), Bello (tough, smart and finding the perfect line between self-aware and utterly clueless) and Brenneman (who makes her sentimental role funny and engaging, cutting through the sap with her usual dry line readings). If the ending deviates from the book into a slightly fantastic ending, it's a sign of the movie's success that we want it to do that, to give these characters the happy endings they deserve. Best of all, it's made me want to catch up on all the Austen I haven't read (sadly, I am a Grigg, with only Pride and Prejudice under my belt). Any suggestions, Austenians?