Jane Austen Book Club, The (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Jane Austen Book Club is an example of how a movie can follow the general plot of a book yet fail to capture the spirit. The problem is a simple one to identify: much of the enjoyment derived from Karen Joy Fowler's novel comes from the way in which it is written, and the manner in which she interweaves subtle references and asides to Austen. Robin Swicord's adaptation is stripped-down and straightforward, and something has been lost in translation. The film comes across like a soap opera and there are too many characters and storylines for any one of them to grab the heart and imagination. The film isn't painful but it is disappointing.

A group of five women and one man decide to meet once a month for six months to discuss the Jane Austen canon: Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. That there are echoes of Austen in the lives of some of the group members is unsurprising. Bernadette (Kathy Baker), the organizer of the book club, has been married numerous times and would like to try once more before she dies. Jocelyn (Maria Bello) loves her life as a single woman and views her beloved dogs as being more suitable companions than men. Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) is brooding over her failed marriage to Daniel (Jimmy Smits), who has left her after 20 years of marriage. Allegra (Maggie Grace) is Sylvia's lesbian daughter. Prudie (Emily Blunt) is a young, unhappily married school teacher. Her husband (Marc Blucas) treats her like an ornament and she finds herself attracted to one of her students (Kevin Zegers). Finally, there's Grigg (Hugh Dancy). He's a science fiction fan but he's smitten with Jocelyn and agrees to come to the club when she invites him. She sees him as a match for Sylvia, not her, but fails to see that she could be Emma to his Mr. Knightley.

To her credit, Swicord tries to incorporate as much Austen into the movie as she can. The film is divided into six chapters (each named after an Austen novel). Excepts are provided from the book discussions. And there are the inevitable parallels between the readers and the characters they're reading about (the strongest ones being Emma and Persuasion - not much Pride and Prejudice at all, but we have Becoming Jane for that). In the end, however, the movie's Austen aspects seem more like window dressing than integral elements of the story. One senses that this could have been the Ursula Leguin Club (named after Grigg's favorite novelist) and not a lot would change.

The story that's the most interesting is that of Grigg and Jocelyn, perhaps because it is given more care and attention than the others. Hugh Dancy, who was annoying as a drunk in Evening, is more charming here as the rich, clueless male in a sea of females. Maria Bello's Jocelyn seems like a modern-day version of an Austen character, and Bello and Dancy click. Second most interesting is tragic Prudie, who is played with great pathos by Emily Blunt (with an American accent). Less compelling is the trite breakup between Sylvia and Daniel - he leaves her for a "more interesting" woman then discovers he made a mistake. Allegra's story never really gets off the ground and Bernadette doesn't really have one.

Too often, The Jane Austen Book Club feels crowded and rushed as characters and stories vie for screen time. Although the movie doesn't demand familiarity with Austen, it's hard to imagine anyone being attracted to film with this title unless they have an affinity for the 18th century writer. Like other female bonding movies (The Joy Luck Club and Waiting to Exhale leap to mind), this one works only to the degree to which the individual viewer bonds with the characters. The superficiality of the protagonists makes this is a difficult movie to feel more strongly about than a passable diversion.

Jane Austen Book Club, The (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2007-09-21
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1