The Jane Austen Book Club
Review by Jack Foley
AT FIRST glance, The Jane Austen Book Club sounds like an extremely arduous experience that’s best reserved for those with a thorough appreciation of all things Pride & Prejudice and beyond.
Fortunately, first-time director Robin Swicord has the sense to avoid overlong discussions on the merits of Austen’s literature and the sensibility to populate her movie with a first-rate cast.
By instead attempting to mirror the social behaviour of a group of contemporary Californians with that of the novelist’s creations, she has succeeded in providing an interesting and often amusing look at humanity and how far it has really progressed.
The Californians in question are prompted to form the book club after a number of life-altering events. For the independent Jocelyn (Maria Bello), it’s the loss of her dog, while for Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) it’s the sudden departure of her straying husband (Jimmy Smits).
Uptight married teacher Prudie (Emily Blunt), meanwhile, is contemplating an ill-advised liaison with a charming student (Kevin Zegers), while Sylvia’s daughter (Maggie Grace) has just decided to embrace her lesbianism.
All are held together by the free-spirited Bernadette (Kathy Baker) until they invite stranger Grigg (Hugh Dancy) to join in and romantic misunderstandings ensue.
Swicord’s film begins with a delightful montage of contemporary frustrations that highlight how dependent we’ve become on technology and how isolated we are as a result, before proceeding to establish the messed-up lives of its protagonists.
And while the ensuing screenplay sometimes feels like it’s straining to maintain the Austen allusions, it’s enlivened by the charisma of its stars.
Blunt, especially, shines as the neurotic Prudie, building on the excellent work she did on The Devil Wears Prada, and Dancy displays a nice line in self-deprecating humour that makes his character genuinely endearing.
It’s also good to see Smits on the big screen and working wonders to ensure that his philandering hubby isn’t merely the villain of the piece, while the likes of Bello, Bates and Brenneman deliver characters that are worth caring about.
And while there’s an obvious chick flick appeal about the nature of proceedings and the saccharine ending, Swicord works hard to ensure that matters stay just the right side of sickly sweet.
The overall result is a film that’s capable of generating a much wider appeal than its title suggests and which, for all its faults, works hard to satisfy those of a hopelessly romantic persuasion.
Running time: 1hr 45mins
UK DVD Release: March 17, 2008