The Jane Austen Book Club

The Jane Austen Book Club


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Jane Austen is one of those authors whom one either loves or hates. Many people, however, simply don't try her work, and this is a film which may well inspire new readers to do so. She wrote six famous novels, all of which come under discussion in the book club at the centre of the story. She also inspired countless imitators, both in books and in film, and a considerable number of adaptations.

This particular film's conceit is to have the lives of its heroines - the book club members - inadvertently come to resemble those of Austen's characters. It's a pleasing enough strategy for those seeking nothing deeper than formulaic romance, but, as the author herself said, the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety. It's a clever film, well dressed, well read, but there doesn't seem to be much of anything beneath the surface.

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Six novels, six months, six book club members. Jocelyn, whose most important emotional relationships have all been with dogs. Sylvia, just going through a divorce. Allegra, her daughter, perpetually injuring herself and rapidly getting through girlfriends. Prudie, trapped in a lonely marriage and tempted by a pretty student. Kathy, veteran of six marriages. And Grigg, the token male, a tech support worker encountering Austen for the first time.

Of course, it's difficult for a film of conventional length to do justice to so many characters, with the result that we only get to know a few of them properly, but they are all more impressively rounded than is usually the case in this genre, drawing on rich source material from Karen Joy Fowler's novel. Particularly impressive is the characterisation of Grigg, a science fiction fan who would, in the hands of lesser writers, have been reduced to a pitiful stereotype. Here, whilst he doesn't come across as entirely clueful within the world the women inhabit, he's clearly intelligent and articulate and possessed of interesting ideas of his own, making him the perfect foil for Jocelyn, who persuades him to read Austen but hesitates to read Ursula Le Guin.

Drawing on prejudices which many audience members will share, this clever device comes much closer to the skillful plotting of Austen at her best than do the lazier episodes about sexual temptation and the stresses of mature marriages. In these stories, too much of the emotional content is assumed - the plot relies on familiar notions of what marital breakdown is like and fails to show us why these individuals have found themselves where they are. As such, it makes it harder for us to care.

In the end, what lets this film down is the very quality which undermines so much of Austen's work - its neatness, its willingness to conform to a set pattern at the expense of letting characters evolve. It's salvaged by a series of strong performances, especially from minor performers like Marc Blucas (as Prudie's husband), and this, together with the well-researched script, makes it more human. Ultimately, however, it comes across as something very old fashioned and knowingly twee. Served in the finest china, but not everybody's cup of tea.

Reviewed on: 12 Nov 2007
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The members of a Jane Austen book club find their lives beginning to resemble her stories.
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Director: Robin Swicord

Writer: Robin Swicord, based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler.

Starring: Maria Bello, Amy Brenneman, Emily Blunt, Hugh Dancy, Maggie Grace, Kathy Baker, Marc Blucas, Jimmy Smits

Year: 2007

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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